Japan's moon boom: Tiny robot leads the way

Japanese researchers are on the cusp of a breakthrough in lunar exploration, but not without some last-minute practice. They'll attempt the first-ever unmanned commercial moon landing this week after simulating parts of the mission back here on Earth.

A lander developed by Tokyo-based venture firm ispace is currently orbiting the moon at a height of about 100 kilometers. It's called HAKUTO-R Mission 1, and officials say the craft will start its descent early on Wednesday Japan time.

The lander's payload includes a rover from the United Arab Emirates, and a rather cute Japanese robot whose developers include major toymaker Tomy.

It's called SORA-Q, and you could be forgiven for thinking it really did come from the kids' section of a shopping mall. This ball-shaped robot measures about 8 centimeters in diameter, and weighs just 250 grams.

Japanese robot SORA-Q was developed by JAXA and companies including toymaker Tomy.

SORA-Q will be tasked with sending photographs back to Earth. The US space agency NASA plans to buy them, in what would be a breakthrough business transaction for resources from the moon.

Practice makes perfect

Right now, engineers at a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency facility are doing their best to ensure everything goes without a hitch.

On Monday, they practiced maneuvering a SORA-Q on a mock-up of the moon's surface. They also checked other functions, including the camera.

Engineers in Japan put their robot to the test here on Earth.

JAXA researcher Kawai Yuta says he can't wait to see their little round robot negotiating the surface of the real moon.

Deliveries on the horizon

ispace was established in September 2010, and this is by no means the team's only foray into moon exploration.

ispace is part of a private-sector boom in lunar exploration.

A lunar rover the firm developed was a finalist in a contest run by entities including Google a few years back.

ispace founder and CEO Hakamada Takeshi believes the moon will be habitable for as many as 1,000 people less than 20 years from now.

And they will of course need a steady flow of supplies. Officials at ispace plan to meet demand by expanding into the lunar delivery business.

ispace founder Hakamada Takeshi says people will soon be able to live on the moon.

"Economic activities on the moon, such as construction and agriculture, will go into full swing in the near future," insists Hakamada.

Officials at ispace say they plan to work with a US research institute to provide NASA with a cargo service.

And they also plan to explore the moon using a rover of their own by 2025.

The search for water

Moon exploration dates back to the Cold War, but interest is surging again after research suggested the presence of water in areas the sun does not reach.

Officials at NASA say there could be at least 600 million tons of ice in the moon's North Pole alone.

But the theory is so far based on data from a probe orbiting the moon — not a surface rover, and not a human.

NASA launched an unmanned mission to the moon in 2022.

Big missions, big money

One of the biggest moon exploration programs currently underway is called Artemis. It's led by the United States, but Japan and some European countries are also taking part.

Officials at NASA say the first stage of the mission was completed in December when an unmanned spacecraft launched the month before successfully returned to Earth.

In 2025, they plan to send astronauts to an area thought to contain ice.

In others projects, Japan's JAXA plans to send a probe to the moon after August. Officials at the agency are also working with their counterparts in countries such as India to land an unmanned probe at the South Pole in 2025.

In 2020, Chinese space engineers brought rock samples back using an unmanned spacecraft. Next year, they plan to get more from the South Pole.

Plenty more activity in the private sector, too. Several companies in the US are set to launch landers after May, and some plan to search for water in the South Pole next year.

Estimates suggest the moon exploration industry will be worth 170 billion dollars by 2040.

The race is heating up, and Japan's own space pioneers are playing their part.