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December 30, 2013

NASA's New Mars Rover: Where We're Going, We Don't Need Wheels?

With the Curiosity rover bounding along the Martian surface, and some even building a model of said rover, considerations are already underway for the next generation of rover. More specifically, NASA is testing a new kind of rover that may be put into service that dispenses with a part that, before this, some might have believed to be utterly indispensable: the wheels.

Reports suggest that NASA's newest model rover may not be using wheels at all, but an array of rods and cables formed in a kind of intersecting grid. The grid in question is then driven by a series of motors, which then move in a fashion that moves the entire system along. Referred to as “tensegrity,”--a portmanteau of “tension” and “integrity”--it's designed to lighten the load severely, and make the rover not only a better, more fuel-efficient choice for going to the Martian surface, but also for going to the surface of farther away objects like Titan, the moon currently in orbit around Saturn.

The problem, of course, is one of distance. Places like Titan and even Mars are pretty far away by most any applicable standard, and as such, it takes a lot of fuel to get anything out to those places. The tensegrity system looks to offer up a great way to save fuel by reducing the overall size and weight of the rockets needed to transport the rover to its intended destination. Indeed, there's even reportedly been some work in terms of getting the rover to act as its own kind of landing gear system, with the rod and cable mix folding up for travel and deploying when necessary to carry out its mission.

Reports further suggest that the tensegrity concept has plenty of room for application on this front; not only is the rover more easily deployed—it could reportedly be dropped from a rocket over 60 feet above the intended surface and deploy to be ready to go—but it's also a much smaller overall rover, with current prototypes said to be measuring three feet across, and there's even room for further size loss. Some have even suggested that NASA may be able to take this concept to the point where multiple rovers can go out and still represent a total fuel savings, allowing for more ground to be covered in more rapid fashion.

It may not sound like the kind of thing that could work, but early video of similar systems suggests that it actually could work out rather nicely. It's small, it's lightweight, it collapses pretty easily and, perhaps best of all, it could be extremely inexpensive, the kind of development that has to be boding well indeed for governments watching budgets in the face of angry, tapped-out taxpayers. We've had a lot of great developments as far as space goes of late, and anything that helps us consider our future as a species is something of a welcome move in its own right. It actually brings to mind those old science experiments of the younger days: the “egg drop” experiment in which students try to find a way to absorb shock sufficiently to allow an egg to be dropped from a comparatively great height and survive the fall.

Whether or not the tensegrity model finds itself pressed into service as the next standard of NASA space probe, it's still an exciting idea, and one that may well find itself—as so many NASA applications have before it—involved in applications closer to home.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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