Small tires that could ride on Mars

US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — The surface of Mars is a complex and inhospitable place, especially for rovers. As future missions to Mars become more complex, NASA’s robotic wanderers will need new technologies to further explore the history of the Red Planet.

One such technology is a new innovative tire being developed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center using innovative shape memory alloys (SMA).

Tires made from these shape-changing materials have unrivaled durability because they bend with terrain in contrast to modern hard wheels. They can actually envelop stones without risk of a puncture. They also provide a smoother ride — almost like adding shock absorbers — to minimize potential damage to rover systems.

“Glenn began working with the US tire industry many years ago to develop the best non-pneumatic or airless tire for the Moon,” said Vivake Asnani, senior tire engineer at Glenn. “This led to the creation of an improved tire, known as Spring Tire, designed using a steel spring network that adapted and was embossed like a traditional rubber tire.”

Since then, Glenn engineers have replaced conventional steel with SMA springs to improve the rover’s ability to operate in extremely rocky terrain and at low Mars temperatures. This is attractive to planners for future missions to Mars because of their lower weight and durability.

Engineers are currently refining SMA material processing, designing and environmental testing the new Mars tire in a moon relief laboratory in the center of Glenn.

“We are developing Mars-grade material that significantly improves the capabilities of SMA and makes reversible material deformations possible under the harsh conditions of Mars without sacrificing performance,” said Dr. Santo Padula, lead SMA material and design engineer at Glenn.

Tests have shown that excellent tire grip meets or exceeds all traction requirements and will give rover drivers the ability to cross different sections. More durable tires also allow the design of a rover using just four wheels, unlike previous six-wheel configurations. Thus, for future human studies or robotic missions, these tires can provide valuable flexibility in vehicle and spacecraft design.

NASA’s next Mars exploration mission, Mars 2020, and its Persistency rover, are scheduled to launch in July this year.

Meanwhile, engineers at Glenn will continue to improve SMA technology for use on Mars and here on Earth, including tires for passenger cars, military and aircraft wheels. The SMA concept for passenger cars has been tested and can ultimately replace conventional air-conditioned tires, eliminating the risk of punctures and rides with insufficient wheel pressure, as well as improving fuel economy and safety.

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