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Japan has long reached out to the world through its toys. Now it’s sending them to the stars.
On August 23rd, India became the first nation to land a probe, named “Vikram,” on the south pole of the Moon. It was the culmination of a tense race with Russia, whose Luna-25 lander would have beaten Vikram by a matter of days had it not crashed first. The triumph sparked jubilation among Indian citizens. As well it should – landing things on the moon is very, very tricky. So tricky that to date only a handful of nations have managed the feat: until now, just the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Moon landings are more than just technical feats: they are a source of national prestige and diplomatic power on a planetary stage. “This is a victory cry of a new India,” declared Prime Minister Modi after Vikram’s landing, waving an Indian flag.
Now Japan is back in the game, with a successful H-IIA rocket launch this morning. But it seems to be taking a different approach to the moon race, one with a lot less less flag-waving. It involves a lunar probe called SLIM, also known as “The Moon Sniper.” Despite the scary-sounding name, it isn’t a weapon but rather a new type of miniaturized “smart lander” that can target landing sites on its own, without human intervention, to a degree of accuracy much higher than traditional landers can achieve.
That is a big deal in and of itself, but I think Japan’s approach to the new moon race is better symbolized by a tiny rover being carried aboard SLIM. It’s called SORA-Q. It is a baseball-sized sphere that will “transform” into operational mode upon hitting the lunar surface, then scuttle around taking photos and video. It isn’t the product of an industrial-military complex, but rather a toy company, Takara Tomy.
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I wrote about SORA-Q at length for The New Yorker last year, interviewing staff of both Takara Tomy and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). To summarize, it’s the first lunar rover, and probably first aerospace technology of any kind, designed by a toy company, which is pretty cool. It incorporates technologies from the Transformers and Zoids toylines, which is even more fun. And unlike the boxy, utilitarian rovers of other nations, it has style. In fact, it’s downright cute. When you watch the little thing hustle through the sand, it’s impossible not to cheer it on. Other countries have launched things to the moon, but none so kawaii.
Superficially, the SLIM mission isn’t as ambitious as the Chinese, American, and Indian missions. It isn’t aiming for unexplored luna incognita or paving the way for a moonbase; it’s targeting a crater on the near side of the moon, and intended to demonstrate one specific technology of precision landing. Even still, if successful, it will put Japan in that very small group of nations that have pulled off a lunar landing of any kind.
Moon landings have always been about science and prestige, but today they’re also about commerce. Russia’s Luna-25 and India’s Vikram targeted the south pole because of the presence of water ice there. If that can be harvested, it will greatly accelerate efforts to industrialize the moon. So this is as much about staking claims as it is about making science. With SLIM and SORA-Q, Japan seems to be charting a less aggressive approach to the space race — or is it? If the technologies JAXA is testing work, they could be licensed to other moongoers. As the old idiom goes, "during a gold rush, sell shovels” — you can make more supplying the competitors than jumping in the fray yourself.
But SORA-Q is about more than just cute factor. For all the excitement over Vikram’s landing, you may have noticed that there isn’t much footage of the achievement. The reason is simple: it’s tough for a lander to take a picture of itself. This is another, less talked about reason for SORA-Q’s deployment. The thing can take pictures of SLIM’s landing! This is an epic twist. It’s a boon for the scientists and engineers, of course. But a “selfie” is exactly the sort of thing that might go viral online, making it perfect for promotional and marketing purposes, too. This is moon landing as meme.
And in a certain sense, even without having landed yet, Japan is already beating other, fiercer competitors when it comes to commercializing its moon program. Takara Tomy is selling working models of SORA-Q on its website. Sure, other nations have produced models of their landers. But those are models of scientific equipment – SORA-Q was designed by a toy company from the very start, and the consumer edition of SORA-Q isn’t so much a model as it is a duplicate of the one on the moon (albeit made out of aluminum, rather than the aerospace grade titanium of the real deal.) Japanese toys are a big business. Space is a big business, too, but from a viewer perspective unmanned spaceflight can lack pizzazz. Using toys to give the space program a boost (see what I did there?) is a canny move. It gives people, and not only Japanese people, something to cheer for. No other nation’s space program is currently doing anything remotely like this from a soft power standpoint.
It will be quite some time before SLIM and SORA-Q make it to the moon. Japan lacks heavy lift vehicles of the sort its nuclear-armed rivals use. Those powerful rockets are descendants of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and let US and Russia make it to the moon in a matter of weeks, even days. SLIM will slingshot around the Earth many times to build up enough velocity to depart for the moon.
It will take four months to arrive in lunar orbit. It’s slow, but very cost-effective – another way in which Japan’s comparatively low-key approach might actually prove more useful (and salable) to other countries that, like it, do not possess the resources of a nuclear superpower.
So stay tuned. Japan may not be the first on the moon, but it is charting a unique course for itself, different from that of military powers butting heads over firsts and staking claims over resources. Traditionally, lunar soft landings represent equal parts hard power and soft power. But if Japan can put a Transformer on the moon, it will represent a first of a different kind: a landing less tinted by nationalism, by turns more playful, more shareable and more meme-worthy. Space is hard, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, too.