Next time someone chides you for wasting your time reinventing the wheel, tell them that the smart folks at NASA did it too. Of course, they didn’t as much as reinvent the wheel as they made a new kind of wheel. The space agency, of course, has been toying with all sorts of new wheels that would let its machines and future human explorers safely and comfortably, as much as they can, across the moon, Mars, and beyond. And NASA might have finally found an answer in the form of a deforming and compliant tire made of springs memory alloy springs.
If wheels are still a continuously evolving technology here on familiar ground, imagine what they are when you factor in space exploration. While physics more or less works in the same way there at it does here, the terrain, gravity, and other environmental factors require more than even the Earth’s toughest tire.
In fact, tougher doesn’t actually mean better. While these wheels do need to endure harsh terrain, more rigid tires actually fare worse over time. NASA Glenn, the agency’s research arm, has long been working on spring-based wheels that can change their form, dissipate force, and remain intact over all types of terrain.
But even that wasn’t enough because, over time, deformable tires, well, deformed, and they stay that way. Plastic deformation has baffled NASA’s engineers until, by serendipitous meeting, they got connected with someone who mastered in shape memory alloys. And, thus, a new spring mesh wheel, made of nickel titanium, was born.
These new “SMA” wheels are able to carry the same amount of payload as rigid wheels but don’t suffer the side effects of plastic deformation and sinking on softer ground. Plus, they can be used to travel on more types of terrain and in moderate to high speeds, which will be needed if and when humans start roving Mars for real.