'Game-changer' should be the first words to pop into your head. An advanced material has been developed to create spring tires, so, basically NASA is reinventing the wheel.
Engineers at the Glenn Research centre have developed a non-pneumatic, complaint tire for future Mars missions.
The wheel is known as Superelastic Tire and marks the latest evolution of the Spring Tire, invented in the mid-aughts by NASA Glenn and Goodyear.
The original invention consisted of several hundred coiled steel wires, woven like chainmail into a flexible mesh, able to support heavy loads while adapting to rocky landscapes.
Inspired by the Apollo lunar tires, the Spring Tire performed well during simulated tests at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but it had one fatal flaw...the spring steel would buckle under the pressure of a punishing Martian terrain. Emboldened by the proposal of nickel-titanium, a shape memory alloy that does not dent like conventional materials, scientists got to work.
“We can actually deform this all the way down to the axel and have it return to shape, which we could never even contemplate in a conventional metal system,” materials scientist Santo Padula said in a video that can be seen below.
This time the tire performed much more impressively in lab-based tests, climbing over jagged rocks without losing its frame.
So, what is the secret behind the Superelastic Tire, you ask? Well, it is the nickel-titanium's capacity for atomic rearrangement, which fends off unwanted distortion.
“There are three major benefits to developing high-performing compliant tires that are capable of performing in a Martian or Lunar environment,” according to a NASA website.
Not only does it allow the rovers to explore more surface area and carry heavier payloads, the wheels can also be used to ferry humans across alien lands at higher speeds.
The invention may even serve as an alternative to the rubber tires we use here on Earth. At the moment the technology is being eyed for future Mars rover missions.