A Mini Moon Rover from the Toy Company That Created Transformers

The private museum of Takara Tomy, the Japanese toy company responsible for Transformers, Beyblade, and Zoids, is filled with playthings from Christmases past. In a lovingly curated room in the company’s Tokyo headquarters, a miniature B-29 bomber, faintly flecked with rust, sits at the ready in a glass display case. A squad of Micronauts action figures seems to have warped in from the seventies. An R2-D2-esque Omnibot, the remote-controlled robot that I begged my parents to buy in 1985, looks ready to roll. In the near future, these toys are likely to be joined by a very different sort of gadget: a small, spherical moon rover named SORA-Q, which Takara Tomy designed for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

In recent years, numerous countries and companies have joined a new race to the moon, motivated not only by science and national prestige but also the potential to harvest lunar resources. NASA plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface after half a century; China wants to open a nuclear-powered base. Other entrants include the U.A.E., India, and a private Israeli effort. (The latter two each lost landers to malfunctions, in 2019.) Japan, for its part, will lend an astronaut to NASA’s upcoming Artemis moon missions. SORA-Q, however, is likely to get there first. On December 11th, Takara Tomy’s round rover hitched a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which catapulted the world’s first commercial lunar lander, ispace’s Hakuto-R M1, toward the moon. Another SORA-Q will be carried aboard SLIM, a JAXA lander slated to touch down in 2023.

The M1 and SLIM missions will each follow a circuitous, months-long trajectory to the moon that consumes less fuel than a direct flight. If all goes according to plan, shortly before their main landers reach the lunar surface, they will eject various smaller probes, including SORA-Q. With its honeycombed aluminum-alloy shell, SORA-Q looks something like a metallic Wiffle ball and takes its name from sora, which means “sky” in Japanese; the “Q” is a homonym for the Japanese word meaning “sphere.” As the dust settles, SORA-Q will unfold like a Transformer: the sphere will split in half, exposing a pair of cameras and dividing its two hemispheres into wheels. In the case of M1, mission controllers will remotely instruct their SORA-Q to turn toward the main lunar lander and transmit images back to Earth. (One long-standing challenge of landing missions is that they generally can’t take selfies from a distance, so scientists can’t visually diagnose problems—and images of the landing can’t go viral.)

Takara Tomy’s headquarters is situated in Tokyo’s Katsushika ward, a low-slung downtown neighborhood on the easternmost edge of the city, a few train stops from the touristy Asakusa. The company neighbors Aoto Peace Park, an urban oasis of playgrounds and a memorial that contains debris from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a Takara Tomy meeting room, Yōsuke Yoneda, an engineer who joined Tomy more than forty years ago, told me about the origins of the partnership. In 2015, JAXA launched a space-exploration innovation hub to strengthen connections with the private sector, and a Takara Tomy executive saw a JAXA booth at an expo in Tokyo. “The idea of making a design with the smallest number of motors, in reducing the number of components to the bare minimum—as a toy company, this is something we have been doing for a long time,” Yoneda said. “The initial idea, as we understood it from JAXA, was for a bug-like design that could move around on its own.”

Yoneda and his team showed me three toys that helped to inspire SORA-Q prototypes. The first, an iteration of Optimus Prime, was a Transformer. The second, a boxy little i-Sobot, could be remotely controlled and held a Guinness World Record for the smallest mass-produced humanoid robot. The third, a feline Zoid called Liger Zero, walked on battery power. The team quickly abandoned the idea of using legs, which seemed too complex and fragile, and instead focussed on a spherical design. SORA-Q vaguely resembles a “Star Wars” droid, but its appearance has more to do with physics than pop culture. “After exploring many options, we realized that a ball represented the smallest possible shape,” Yoneda told me.

Takara Tomy usually spends a year developing a new toy, but SORA-Q took six: the team revised its plans again and again, experimenting with rough and non-slip exteriors before settling on one with holes. Drawing on the toymaker’s engineering model, JAXA built a final version of the rover out of aerospace-grade aluminum and plastic, incorporating miniaturized electronics and optics from Sony. It chose materials and components that could meet stringent weight, size, and durability requirements. (Neither Takara Tomy nor JAXA would tell me how much the rover cost.) SORA-Q needs to survive stresses that even Sid, the bully in “Toy Story,” couldn’t dream up: the vibrations and g-forces of launch, the blunt impact of landing, and lunar temperatures that can range from two hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit in the sun to two hundred and eight degrees below zero at night.

Westerners have associated Japan with toys since some of their earliest visits there. “We do not know of any country in the world in which there are so many toy-shops, or so many fairs for the sale of things which delight children,” William Elliot Griffis, an American minister and educator who arrived in Japan in the eighteen-seventies, wrote. A few decades later, as Japan began to open up its economy after centuries of self-imposed isolation, its leaders encouraged toymakers to show off their porcelain dolls, paper umbrellas, and celluloid figurines to foreign buyers at World’s Fairs and expositions. By the early thirties, inexpensive Japanese toys were so successful that frustrated American toy companies were petitioning the U.S. government for tariffs.

During the Second World War, Imperial Japanese authorities froze the toy industry and repurposed its factories to make weapons. Then, on March 10, 1945, American B-29s firebombed Tokyo. Downtown factory areas, where former toymakers and their families were clustered, were among the targets. In the most destructive conventional bombing in history, more than a hundred thousand Tokyoites perished, most of them civilians.

After the war, one of the first toys manufactured in Japan was a miniature tin Army Jeep, which an enterprising toymaker made by scavenging discarded food and beer cans from American bases. It proved a huge hit, both among war-weary citizens and Allied occupiers, and American forces soon approved toys for export abroad. One toymaker, Eiichiro Tomiyama, designed a tin B-29 in 1951, and it was manufactured, ironically, in one of the very neighborhoods that the real planes had bombed. It was so successful that he was able to rebuild his factory and expand his business. In 1963, he shortened the company’s name to Tomy. (In 2006, Tomy merged with its competitor Takara; Takara Tomy is now chaired by Tomiyama’s grandson Kantaro.)

SORA-Q is not the first toy to make it into space. In the nineties, NASA sent a gyroscope, Slinky, and wind-up frog into orbit on the space shuttle so that astronauts could demonstrate zero-gravity physics to schoolchildren. In 2012, the Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa assembled a Lego version of the International Space Station while aboard the real I.S.S. In 2014, Sanrio sent a Hello Kitty figurine into orbit aboard a Japanese satellite, to celebrate the character’s fortieth anniversary. And, in 2020, the crew of a SpaceX Dragon carried a plush Baby Yoda up to the I.S.S.

Toys have also inspired space engineers before. One of NASA’s newest heat-shield designs was inspired by the concentric loops of a baby’s stacking-ring toy; a prototype lander called Super Ball Bot was similarly inspired by a tensegrity toy, which is built from wooden rods and rubber bands to withstand handling by toddlers. But SORA-Q seems to represent the first time that a space program has tasked a toy company directly with designing equipment for its missions. “They incorporated new ideas, and new kinds of systems, that wouldn’t have occurred to us,” Daichi Hirano, an associate senior researcher at JAXA’s innovation hub, told me. “Creating small things that can expand into larger forms might be called the hallmark of Japanese toy companies.”

At Takara Tomy headquarters, Kenta Hashiba, a member of the engineering team, nestled a SORA-Q prototype into a tabletop sandbox. After a countdown from three, he pressed a button on a remote control; with an audible click, the ball split into two hemispheres, which were connected to a boxy core by independent axles. Atop the core were two cameras; trailing behind it was a curved metal “tail,” which works like a rudder and keeps the sphere upright as it rolls along.

When SORA-Q’s hemispheres rotate in synch, the rover rolls in a straight line. When they rotate independently, on their separate axles, it can steer clear of obstacles with a wiggle that resembles an army crawl. SORA-Q looks nothing like the boxy, wheeled research rovers that historical moon and Mars missions have trained us to expect; instead, its lifelike locomotion—and the herringbone-pattern trail it leaves behind—reminded me of a scuttling crustacean or desert dweller. “Giving it an animal-like gait,” Hashiba told me, as though reading my mind, “is how we were able to get it moving through the sand without getting caught up.” It also lent SORA-Q an inherent adorability, which the Japanese would call kawaii.

For the M1 and SLIM missions, and their pocket-size SORA-Q payloads, the stakes are high. A recent JAXA spacecraft, dubbed OMOTENASHI and touted as the world’s smallest moon lander, was launched on NASA’s uncrewed Artemis 1, in November, but malfunctioned and had to be abandoned. “SPACE IS HARD Y’ALL,” Elizabeth Tasker, a British astrophysicist working at JAXA, lamented on Twitter. Since the sixties, more than a third of robotic lunar-landing attempts have ended in failure. Targeting a specific location on the moon’s surface, a JAXA employee told Spectra magazine, is “akin to slamming on the brakes while driving at maximum speed on an expressway and bringing the car to a neat stop in a specific parking space.” (SLIM, which stands for “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon,” relies on A.I. to make its landing more precise; its SORA-Q is designed to operate autonomously.)

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