A fun, spherical robot friend may soon visit the Moon. The Japanese space agency JAXA has announced plans to build a transformable lunar rover to explore the moon before the crew’s planned mission.
To navigate the lunar regolith – the dusty, soil-like substance that covers the lunar surface – the rover will be able to transform from a spherical shape designed to be as compact and efficient as possible into the delightfully named “running form,” which it will use to navigate through the lunar environment. It will take pictures of the surface to learn more about the terrain and properties of the regolith, which will help engineers develop a more maneuverable rover with a crew.
The spherical robot will be only a few inches across, or slightly larger than a tennis ball, and weigh about 250 grams (8.8 ounces). To fit all the necessary technology into this tiny form, JAXA is partnering with toy company Tomy and Doshish University, with technology also provided by Sony.
JAXA says it plans to launch the mini rover in 2022, followed by a much larger rover in 2029. This larger rover will be pressurized and serviced by a crew, allowing astronauts to cover more of the moon’s surface and explore it more widely. JAXA will also collaborate with NASA on the Artemis mission to the moon.
“In 2019, the Japanese government decided to participate in the Artemis program that was proposed by the United States,” said JAXA Vice President Hiroshi Sasaki. “Based on this decision, JAXA is advancing mission development and systems research for international space exploration to explore the Moon and Mars by gathering Japanese technology and knowledge.
“In particular, a sealed crewed rover will play an important role in developing mobility on the lunar surface for sustained research activities. Lunar surface data can be obtained from the transformable lunar robot, which is a product of the Space Research Innovation Center, and lunar landing missions by a commercial company. Using the data obtained in the best possible way, we will undoubtedly continue our research on building a sealed crewed Mars rover.”