Science and engineering have long drawn on ideas from science fiction. It seems having a plot and screenplay generally panned by critics is no obstacle to inspiring the future course of technology. The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) has announced plans to put a Transformable Lunar Robot on the Moon.
Sixty years after President Kennedy turned America's eyes to the Moon, the idea of returning has renewed currency. Already China has operated several landers and rovers in the last decade, while India and Israel have suffered failures. Many nations have plans in various stages of development to land either robots or humans on our satellite's surface.
JAXA announced six years ago they would be sending a robot probe to the Moon, and have now expressed an intention to do more than just land there and take some samples. Instead, they plan to send a near-spherical robot weighing just 250 grams (0.5 pounds). On reaching the lunar surface it will transform into its new shape suited to driving across the perilous terrain.
Although it initially looks a little like BB-8 from The Force Awakens the rover appears to owe more to the Transformers series, and specifically, the Dark of The Moon film partly set there. After packing up just 8 centimeters (3.2 inches) across for the journey, the robot's center will push the casing outwards, creating two wheels joined by a connecting axle. Not quite Optimus Prime, but you have to start somewhere. The lander will be built by toy manufacturer Tomy, in partnership with Sony and Doshisha University. No doubt simpler versions will be available for sale to help defray the cost of the mission.
The purpose of the mission is to study how the combination of the Moon's low gravity and the dusty surface will affect the movement of crewed vehicles across it. The Apollo missions didn't really know if the lunar buggies the astronauts rode around in would get stuck, limiting the distance traveled to something they could walk back if necessary.
JAXA intends to land a crewed mission on the Moon soon, and hopes what they call; “Ultra-compact and ultra-lightweight robot” will send them the data they need to allow a pressurized rover to cover its intended 10,000 kilometer (6,000 mile) range in safety.
As is sadly common for space missions, JAXA's plans are already well behind schedule. In 2015 they expressed an intention to have a robot probe reach the Moon by 2019. Now even this small rover is not expected to happen until 2029. A timeline for human missions is even less certain.
Once things get underway, however, JAXA hopes to make the most of the technology they develop. They are offering space on their missions to other countries, who can use the landers to send their own research projects to the Moon. The Canadian Space Agency and the UAE's Mohamed Bin Rashid Space Center are planning to hitch a ride.
Missions such as this can have surprising applications closer to home NASA has announced the work it is doing to deal with the challenges of the Moon's abrasive dust, which greatly hindered the Apollo missions, is proving promising for tackling atmospheric pollution on Earth.