To boldly go where no toy has gone before
Japan's landing of a Transformer on the moon signals a new frontier for soft power: space.
To commemorate Japan’s historic first moon landing earlier this week, I’m re-releasing an essay from four months ago, when the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched its rocket to the moon. The essay has been updated with new information throughout.
On August 23rd of 2023, 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 that point, 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 we can add Japan to that tantalizingly short list of nations that have soft-landed payloads on the moon. Its SLIM lander touched down on the lunar surface on January 19th. But Japan seems to be taking a different approach to this new space race, one with a lot less less flag-waving than other countries.
SLIM is an acronym for Smart Lander Investigating Moon, but it is also nicknamed “The Moon Sniper.” Scary-sounding though this may be, SLIM isn’t a weapon but rather a new type of “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. At this it succeeded, although an errant thruster malfunction caused it to spin on descent and land upside-down, as seen in the photo at top. (That’s the landing thruster pointing up in the photo. That bit is supposed to be oriented towards the ground.)
Even with this hiccup, SLIM’s touchdown was considered a success, which makes it a huge deal — Japan is now the fifth nation to get a lander to the lunar surface intact. But I think Japan’s space-faring philosophy is better symbolized by a tiny rover that SLIM ejected just before touching down, called SORA-Q. It is a baseball-sized sphere that “transformed” into operational mode upon hitting the lunar surface, then scuttled around taking photo, the first (and only) of which is posted above. The most interesting thing about SORA-Q is that it isn’t the product of an industrial-military complex, or a government-academic initative. It was created by a toy company, Takara Tomy. And not just any toy company: the one responsible for designing the Transformers and a slew of other pop-cultural hits.
Matt Alt's Pure Invention is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I wrote about SORA-Q for The New Yorker in 2022, 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 know-how from 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 landed things on 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. Which it did, albeit with a bit of a hiccup at the end. Then again, any landing a little transforming rover can roll away from is a good landing.
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.
And SORA-Q is about more than just cute factor. For all the excitement over Vikram’s landing, there wasn’t much footage of the actual achievement, because 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. SORA-Q turns moon landings into potential memes. At least one outlet is calling the photo SORA-Q shot “the space photo of the decade,” and the fan-art is already coming in:
In other ways, 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.
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 neded to slingshot around the Earth many times to build up enough velocity to reach the moon, a trip that took four months. 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.
In a press conference, SORA-Q lead Daichi Hirano spoke of "complex feelings" about the landing: happy SORA-Q worked, concerned that SLIM ended up in this orientation, and frustrated at the quality of the photo, as the camera has higher resolution. The reasons for the thruster misfire and the low resolution of the photo are ongoing.
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 now that Japan has shown it can put a Transformer on the moon, it represents 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.