Although 12 astronauts have walked on the moon, there are still lots of places to explore on our nearest celestial neighbor. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has developed a lunar lander for an upcoming mission that will deploy a rover that was jointly developed with TakaraTomy: a company best known for creating the earliest Transformers toys.
The robots that make science fiction series like Star Wars feel so believable are typically brought to life through complicated visual effects—usually a combination of live-action puppets and robots on set that are later augmented and made to appear more lifelike through computer graphics in post-production. So as impressively capable as the rolling BB-8 droid appeared in the last three Star Wars films, sending a similar design to the Moon would be problematic as soon as it hit rough terrain that it couldn’t easily roll over.
To create a more functional alternative to BB-8 that could easily navigate the surface of the Moon while capturing photos and videos to be beamed back to Earth, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency—also known as JAXA—partnered with some experts in the fields of robotics, including researchers from Doshisha University, Sony, and TakaraTomy.
That last company seems a bit out of place when it comes to space exploration as TakaraTomy is a well-known toy maker with product lines that include toys based on Paw Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine, but it’s best known as the company that Hasbro teamed up with in the early ‘80s to create the Transformers toy line which has been popular with kids for almost 40 years.
Transforming a robot to a car and back again still (mostly) requires a pair of human hands, but TakaraTomy has developed an expertise when it comes to designing objects that are capable of turning into something else, and the partnership with Sony and JAXA has resulted in the SORA-Q rover which can transform all on its own to handle the varying terrain of the moon.
While Star Wars’ BB-8 stood about knee high next to its human co-stars, SORA-Q is actually much smaller, measuring just 80-millimeters wide and weighing in at 250 grams. It’s roughly the size of a baseball or the Transformers toys that have been delighting kids and frustrating adults for decades, and it’s why TakaraTomy was brought on to the project: the company not only knows how to build things small and lightweight, over the years it has also developed countless mechanisms to make things transform.
Originally slated to launch in 2017 but delayed until 2022 (and possibly later than this year) SORA-Q will be delivered to the moon as part of JAXA’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (or SLIM, for short) mission. If all goes to plan, a lander will touch down on the surface of the moon after deploying a communications device that can beam data from the rolling robot back to Earth.
Once on its own, SORA-Q will transform from a sphere to a rover with semi-spherical wheels on each side and a camera unit on top featuring lenses that face forward and back. The rover’s wheels allow it to roll around on most smooth surfaces like a two-wheeled vehicle (think the self-balancing Segway or hoverboards that were so popular years ago, although SORA-Q will rely on a tail that folds out of the back for balance) but the wheels also have an offset pivot point and can roll out of phase, turning them into a pair of stubby legs that can climb over uneven terrain and obstacles.
How long and far the tiny rover will be able to roam isn’t known, but its range certainly won’t be as impressive as that of the rovers exploring Mars. However, once its batteries are depleted, there’s no reason it couldn’t roll back to the SLIM lander and take advantage of its solar panels to top itself off again. What’s also not known is whether or not TakaraTomy will be able to manufacture toy versions of SORA-Q once the mission launches to the Moon, but there’s little doubt Transformers collectors would line up for days to add a replica to their collections.