NASA Exploring Idea of Tumbleweed Inspired Mars Rovers

Posted on June 4, 2010

Tumbleweed Rover Prototype

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Langley Research Center are both pursuing the idea of sending wind-powered tumbleweed-like rovers to Mars. The design idea has been around for about ten years, but researchers are still exploring various options for exactly how the rovers should be designed. It is possible a tumbleweed Mars rover design will never be used. If a tumbleweed rover one day lands on Mars, it may be thanks to a new computer model developed by researchers from North Carolina State University.

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a computer model that allows engineers to test the attributes of different rover designs. The computer model will help engineers select the best design characteristics before spending the time and money necessary to create prototypes. For example, the model can show how a rover's diameter, elasticity and overall mass will affect its ability to navigate the Martian surface successfully.

"You can't just build hundreds of different rover designs to see what works it's too expensive," says Alexandre Hartl, a Ph.D. student at NC State who co-authored the paper. "This model allows us to determine which designs may be most viable. Then we can move forward to build and test the most promising candidates."

"We wanted a way to determine how different tumbleweed rover designs would behave under the various conditions that may be faced on the Martian surface," says Dr. Andre Mazzoleni, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research. "The model that we've developed is important, because it will help NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] make informed decisions about the final design characteristics of any tumbleweed rovers it ultimately sends to Mars."

Photo: North Carolina State University Space Systems Laboratory

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