Japan is to invest $114 million in co-operating with the European Space Agency to develop and launch the Bepi Columbo mission to Mercury, which will include an orbiter and separate lander. The craft are scheduled to be launched on two Starsem Soyuz FG boosters in 2010 and 2011, reaching Mercury in 2014.
The only spacecraft to have explored the innermost planet was NASA's Mariner 10, which made three flybys in 1973-4.
Japan's space activities commission, meanwhile, has recommended that management of the Kibo experiment module for the International Space Station be outsourced to cut costs. The Kibo, to be completed in 2006, will cost ¥60 billion ($500 million) a year to operate and the commission estimates the government could save ¥20 billion a year by partially transferring management to the private sector - including pharmaceutical and electronics companies - two to three years after the module begins operations.
Russia is ready to start work on a new habitation module for the ISS to house six crew, and to support it with two docked Soyuz TMA
ferry craft and further Progress resupply tankers - but the USA will have to pay. "NASA has committed to provide for the accommodation of extra crew members," says Russian space agency director Yuri Koptev. "Russia can do this and now it is up the Americans to decide."