Reinventing the Wheel
Planning a trip to the Moon? Mars? You’re going to need good tires…
Exploration requires mobility. And whether you’re on Earth or as far away as the Moon or Mars, you need good tires to get your vehicle from one place to another. Our decades-long work developing tires for space exploration has led to new game-changing designs and materials. Yes, we’re reinventing the wheel—here’s why.
Early tire designs were focused on moving hardware and astronauts across the lunar surface. The last NASA vehicle to visit the Moon was the Lunar Roving Vehicle during our Apollo missions. The vehicle used four large flexible wire mesh wheels with stiff inner frames. We used these Apollo era tires as the inspiration for new designs using newer materials and technology to better function on a lunar surface.
During the mid-2000s, we worked with industry partner Goodyear to develop the Spring Tire, an airless compliant tire that consists of several hundred coiled steel wires woven into a flexible mesh, giving the tires the ability to support high loads while also conforming to the terrain. The Spring Tire has been proven to generate very good traction and durability in soft sand and on rocks.
A little over a year after the Mars Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, engineers began to notice significant wheel damage in 2013 due to the unexpectedly harsh terrain. That’s when engineers began developing new Spring Tire prototypes to determine if they would be a new and better solution for exploration rovers on Mars.
In order for Spring Tires to go the distance on Martian terrain, new materials were required. Enter nickel titanium, a shape memory alloy with amazing capabilities that allow the tire to deform down to the axle and return to its original shape.
After building the shape memory alloy tire, Glenn engineers sent it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Life Test Facility. It performed impressively on the punishing track.
New, high performing tires would allow lunar and Mars rovers to explore greater regions of the surface than currently possible. They conform to the terrain and do not sink as much as rigid wheels, allowing them to carry heavier payloads for the same given mass and volume. Also, because they absorb energy from impacts at moderate to high speeds, there is potential for use on crewed exploration vehicles which are expected to move at speeds significantly higher than the current Mars rovers.
Recently, engineers and materials scientists have been testing a spinoff tire version that would work on cars and trucks on Earth. Stay tuned as we continue to push the boundaries on traditional concepts for exploring our world and beyond.