Computer model tests Mars 'tumbleweed rovers'


June 4, 2010

A tumbleweed rover being tested in Antarctica (Photo: NASA)

A tumbleweed rover being tested in Antarctica (Photo: NASA)

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For over ten years, NASA engineers have been kicking around the idea of a tumbleweed-inspired Mars rover. This “tumbleweed rover” would be a rugged but lightweight ball, with sensors and other electronics securely suspended inside. It would move about simply at the mercy of the Martian wind, much like its botanical namesake. Until now, the only way of testing such rovers has been to build a prototype, then set it loose here on Earth and watch the fun. That could be about to change, however. Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a computer model that can test tumbleweed rover designs before they’re ever built.

"You can't just build hundreds of different rover designs to see what works – it's too expensive," said Alexandre Hartl, a Ph.D. student who took part in the research. "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."

The program takes into account such factors as diameter, elasticity and overall mass. It can also test the designs under different wind conditions, and in different Martian terrains such as rock fields or craters.

"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," said Dr. Andre Mazzoleni, co-author of a paper describing the research. "The model that we've developed is important, because it will help NASA make informed decisions about the final design characteristics of any tumbleweed rovers it ultimately sends to Mars."

The research was funded by NASA and the North Carolina Space Grant Consortium. The paper was published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Forget Mars we need some of these that can be dropped on the Arctic and Antarctic to get temperature readings so we can fill gaps in the Arctic climate data. Design them to move once every few hours to shake the ice off. Make then float in case the ice melts and drop them from aircraft retrieving them when they get near a high latitude base. The Arctic climate data is the most disputed data in the global warming debate there\'s a hole in the Arctic with no weather stations how its handled and what assumptions are applied is the root of some of the disputes. Adding a dozen probes that wander south over a few months would help settle these disputes.

Wesley Bruce

Wouldn\'t it just get blown into a crater shortly after landing and be stuck there forever?

Eric Teutsch

This \"tumbleweed\" should have some sort of ability to jump, hop or in other words float out of any box canyons or big ditches it may occur while being blown about. Some sort of solar heated gaseous mix or something.


ever watch the old TV show \"The Prisoner? They remind me of the big balls they used to keep people under control...

Serafina Tikklya

Yup. And they had such a great name for the thing in The Prisoner... Rover. ;)

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