Japan's latest GPS satellite will guide self-driving cars

The fourth Michibiki machine also gives Japan independence from the US.

Kyodo via Reuters

Japan just fulfilled a key part of its space ambitions -- and it'll have important ramifications for everything from self-driving cars to self-defense. The country has launched its fourth Michibiki satellite, which expands a "quasi-zenith" system designed to provide greater access to GPS in urban 'canyons' where buildings tend to block signals from lower-orbit satellites. Needless to say, that's vital for autonomous vehicles that need GPS to get their bearings in a country dominated by sprawling cities.

The military might want it, too. While Japan's armed forces are largely focused on defense, this fourth quasi-zenith satellite could help those calling on the nation to buy cruise missiles as a deterrent to North Korea. If the North ever launches a strike, Japan could use the GPS-guided missiles in retaliation. There have been objections over the militarization of space (Japan banned military uses for 39 years, until 2008), but North Korea's growing belligerence might see the satellite find use for combat.

As it stands, Japan has plenty of other peaceful purposes. It could help with GPS-guided farm equipment. And importantly, it'll help Japan reduce its dependence on American satellites. The ultimate goal is to operate a cluster of seven Michibiki satellites by 2023, which should be enough to offer true independence.