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Toy Manufacturer's 'Transformer' Lunar Robot Sets Course For the Moon

Lunar robot SORA-Q incorporates ideas drawn from toy development, enabling it to maneuver in two distinct modes during locomotion on the surface of the moon.



SORA-Q is a perfect reproduction of the lunar robot which is scheduled to be shot in space in August 2023 (© Sankei).

H2A Rocket No 47 is scheduled to launch from Kagoshima Prefecture's Tanegashima Space Center on August 28. This time it's carrying the experimental vehicle SLIM, which stands for "Smart Lander for Investigating Moon." Among the payloads on SLIM is SORA-Q, a transformable lunar robot co-developed by toy manufacturer Takara Tomy and JAXA

SORA-Q showcases distinctive technological innovations and creative concepts unique to the world of toy manufacturing. Together with SORA-Q and its other payloads, SLIM aims to achieve Japan's inaugural lunar landing. 

The original launch date of August 27 was postponed due to anticipated adverse weather conditions. 

Resembling a ball roughly the size of a baseball, SORA-Q swiftly transforms upon landing on the lunar surface. It rapidly expands in several directions. The robot's segmented outer shells rotate like wheels, facilitating navigation across the moon's sandy terrain. 

SORA-Q will be deployed just before SLIM's lunar landing, capturing the moment SLIM contacts the lunar expanse. The captured data will be relayed to Earth via the compact probe LEV-1 (Lunar Excursion Vehicle) and play a pivotal role in the mission.

'Transformation' is the Key

The central principle that guided SORA-Q's development is "transformation." In its initial phases back in 2016, a range of prototypes were considered, including insect-like robots. However, the need for compactness and low weight for space transport steered the direction toward the sphere-based design. 

Leveraging their proficiency in designing transforming robot toys like Transformers, the company's distinct technological prowess was skillfully utilized.

The creativity honed through toy development also translates to its movement during operation. 

Kenta Hashiba and Kensuke Akagi (right) from Takara Tomy played pivotal roles in developing a transformable lunar robot. They explain how SORA-Q works on August 10 in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo. (©Sankei by Katsuyuki Seki)

Harnessing the Ideas of Toy Development

SORA-Q incorporates ideas drawn from toy development, enabling it to maneuver in two distinct modes during locomotion. One is the "Butterfly Drive," where the outer shells, functioning as wheels, move simultaneously in a left-right motion. And the other is "Crawl Drive," where they move independently. 

The wheel axle adopts an eccentric shaft, commonly used in animal-like robots, to enhance its mobility. By meticulously adjusting its body posture while moving, SORA-Q can traverse even the inclined lunar surfaces covered in sand. Developmental experimentation successfully demonstrated its capability to ascend slopes of up to 30 degrees.

Kenta Hashiba, a 38-year-old Takara Tomy employee involved in the project, explains. He says, "With SORA-Q, we drew inspiration from the movements of creatures like sea turtles and salamanders that navigate sandy environments."


The flagship commercial model of SORA-Q is scheduled to be released on September 2. 

Sparking the Interest of Future Generations

Kensuke Akagi, a 42-year-old who led the project, reflected on the company's research process.  "Space isn't a concept that feels familiar to children nowadays." 

During the development process, the company conducted an online survey targeting approximately 500 participants, including children aged three to 12 and adults. When asked about their associations with the term "space," around 25% of children responded with "nothing in particular."

Then the company explored ways a toy manufacturer can spark interest in space among today's children. Akagi emphasized the goal of providing an experience akin to having a real lunar robot right at home. He shared, "We want to give kids the experience of having something at home that's just like the actual robots going to the moon." 

This commitment to authenticity is evident in the models intended for sale. They are meticulously crafted to faithfully mirror their space-bound counterparts.

When the Lunar Landing Will Happen

SORA-Q will attempt a lunar landing approximately four to six months following its launch. Once it lands, it will not return to Earth.

Akagi's sincere wish is that the children who play with the SORA-Q model will one day become astronauts. If they do so, he hopes they will encounter the robot on the moon. It is an exciting prospect that he warmly embraces.


(Read the report in Japanese.)

Author: Kazuyuki Nagahashi


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