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Saturday 27 January 2024

A Transformer Toy on the Moon

JAXA/TOMY/Sony/Doshisha University

I've been fascinated by space exploration all my life, and now that a significant part of my livelihood comes from writing about the subject, I follow it even more closely than ever. I'm fortunate in that the magazine I write for is aimed at school-age readers, who are intelligent enough to be excited by all things space and want to know as much as possible about it. On the other hand, it's depressing how little interest the "grown-up" media takes in the subject, often focusing more on its failures than its triumphs. This happened recently with the Japanese space agency's lunar lander, where the media seemed less interested in the fact that it was the most precisely executed robotic landing on the Moon to date than that it ended up "upside down" (or to be pedantically correct, rotated through 180 degrees instead of the planned 90 degrees).

Obviously this wasn't ideal, because it means the spacecraft can't do all the post-landing things it was meant to, but these were secondary goals all along. It was primarily a proof-of-concept demonstrator for the terrain-matching landing software, which worked perfectly. And ironically there was another thing that worked perfectly too - the very thing that gave the media their much-shared image of the "upside-down" lander. This came from a tiny gadget called LEV-2 (sometimes referred to as SORA-Q) which was ejected by the main lander just before it touched down. And this finally brings us to the point of this post, because LEV-2 was made by the TOMY toy company.

 It just happened that TOMY had exactly the experience that JAXA, the Japanese space agency, needed for LEV-2. Designed in conjunction with Sony and a university, this takes the form of a metallic sphere just 8 cm across when it's first deployed. But then, as shown in the picture at the top of this post - and mimicking the Transformer toys that TOMY is best known for - it changes shape, extending wheels on either side and revealing a camera hidden inside. It was this very camera that took the picture of the lander that's now been shared all over the world:




Kid said...

I'd imagine it's a possibility that any negative reporting of the landing was by those from other countries who are a little bit peeved about Japan achieving something their country didn't, AM. You'll know better than me, but I'd expect Japan to have been quite pleased with the positive aspects of the operation - namely, actually reaching the moon.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid. I'd certainly agree with your second point - I think they really only wanted to test the landing technology, and everything else was just to give them something to do when they got there. And I'd probably agree with your first point too (especially after America's latest Moon mission failed to get anywhere near it).

Incidentally, I meant to say in the post but forgot (and you're probably the only person who'll be remotely interested anyway), but TOMY sell a (ridiculously expensive) 1:1 scale replica of their contribution to the mission - try typing "TOMY SORA-Q" into an eBay search.

Kid said...

I did - from £369 right up to £1,021. I think I'll settle for my little Tomy wind-up robots.

Andrew May said...

Very sensible, Kid!

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, do you think a man (or woman) will ever walk on Mars? In my opinion it'll never actually happen as there are too many difficulties to overcome - keeping a human crew safe and well on the nine-month journey for a start then keeping them alive on the surface of Mars for an extended period (remember that the lunar astronauts were on the moon for only a very short time by contrast).

Andrew May said...

Sadly I agree with you Colin. When I first bought books about space around the time of the first Moon landings, it was commonly said that the first crewed Mars landing would be in about ten years time. Then after those ten years, in the 1980s, people were saying it would be ten years from then - i.e. the 1990s. And so on to the present day, when we're confidently told it will be ten years from now, in the 2030s. But we're not the idiots they take us for - we can see a pattern when it's staring us in the face! The problems are all the ones you mention, plus the fact that, when you balance cost and risk against benefits, it's always going to make more sense to use robotic probes rather than crewed spacecraft for planetary exploration. It's a great shame, but it's the situation we have to live with!