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    Japanese Engineers Building Tiny Moon Rovers


    After a decades-long lull, interest in the moon is back -- this time led by startups, including Tokyo-based ispace Inc., which is hoping to land two of its miniature rovers on the lunar surface in 2021.

    When Akane Imamura stumbled on a job posting for Ispace Inc., she thought it was a hoax. The Tokyo startup was looking for an engineer to help develop a miniature lunar rover, which sounded too cool to be true. But a recruiter verified that the posting was in fact authentic, so she applied. She joined the company in 2017 as a spacecraft structure engineer.

    At the time, Ispace was in the final stages of competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which promised to award a total of $30 million to privately funded moon missions. That offer expired last year—none of the competitors made it to the moon in time—but thanks to the more than $90 million Ispace has raised from Japan's government-backed funds and companies, the startup is aiming higher. It’s now focused on making lunar exploration an actual business, first by carrying stuff on its rovers for clients and, eventually, by finding water on the lunar surface and converting that water into fuel.

    The team’s long-term goal is to power a habitable lunar colony by 2040.The first step is the work Imamura is undertaking: designing a rover that can successfully navigate the unique pitfalls of the moon’s surface.

    Imamura is the subject of the season premiere of Next Jobs, a mini-documentary series from Bloomberg that profiles careers of the future. At Ispace, the 36-year-old is responsible for the structural elements of the rover. That includes everything from shaping the wheels to handle the moon’s topography to choosing materials that can keep the machine both resilient and a maximum of 22 pounds, including any cargo. She’s also helping refine parts of the lander slated to carry the two rovers to their destination in 2021.

    One of the biggest challenges of developing a vehicle meant to traverse the moon is that you can’t truly test it without blasting it off into space, which tends to be cost-prohibitive. Recently, Imamura and her team got the next best thing: a chance to run a series of tests on a fake moon. At the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s lunar simulation facility, blackout curtains and spotlights together mock up the harsh contrast of the bright and dark on the moon, and a giant sand pit is filled with sand that its selectors believe best resembles the satellite’s slippery soil.

    The episode also explores the obstacles Imamura faced as a female engineer in Japan, which ranked 110th last year in the World Economic Forum index measuring gender disparities in 149 countries. As she struggled to balance a demanding career with her daughter’s care, Imamura considered giving up on her work. Her success offers some hope that the country can change.

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