NASA Reinvented The Wheel With A New Chainmail Design


NASA Reinvented The Wheel With A New Chainmail Design

NASA Reinvented The Wheel With A New Chainmail Design
NASA Reinvented The Wheel With A New Chainmail Design – Engineer Colin Creager attaches the latest version of the SMA Spring Tire to a test rig in the SLOPE lab. This version weighs 15 lbs, can carry double the amount of load as the previous version and performs better in the deep space temperatures. Credit: NASA.

Reinventing the wheel seems counterproductive – especially given the fact that this particular saying exists in the first place. Even more so is the fact that one could ‘reinvent the wheel’ by using chainmail, or something of that sort.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what NASA managed to achieve. The reason for this particular invention is rather straightforward. Nobody wants to experience a flat tire, ever. And the same thing applies to NASA when it’s sending its vehicles over 55 million miles away from home and from the nearest tow truck or mechanic.

In an example that can only be characterized by thinking ahead – and an example that all of us should follow – NASA’s engineers came up with a revolutionary new design for the wheels that will be used on Mars or other future space missions that will require moving around on a planetary surface.

The way they went about it was to design some incredibly sturdy tires. These tires bend so much and in any shape, going as far down as the axle and then return to their original shape. They are designed to be used for the following Lunar and Martian missions. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to believe that this new wheel design will be used here on Earth as well.

The first technology the engineers looked into for their project was spring steel. This material proved useful in prior designs, functioning nicely in all sorts of different terrain such as sand or mud. But the drawback was that this material inevitably suffers from plastic deformation, meaning that it will inevitably get bent or broken.

This is a recent SMA tire version that has dense coils, weighs about 20 lbs and can handle 165 lbs of load. Credit: NASA.

Luckily, however, a serendipitous meeting between NASA engineer Colin Creager and materials scientist Santo Padula changed the course of the project entirely. Instead of spring steel, they began looking at a stoichiometric nickel-titanium alloy. This chainmail design allows the wheel to withstand 30 times more wear and tear than the spring steel – called Shape Memory Allow Tire (SMA). 

“There are three major benefits to developing high performing compliant tires that are capable of performing in a Martian or Lunar environment. First, they would allow rovers to explore greater regions of the surface than currently possible. Secondly, because they conform to the terrain and do not sink as much as rigid wheels, they can carry heavier payloads for the same given mass and volume.

Lastly, because the compliant tires can absorb energy from impacts at moderate to high speeds, they can be used on crewed exploration vehicles which are expected to move at speeds significantly higher than the current Mars rovers,” NASA said in a statement.

The SMA tire was put under rigorous testing such as Mars-like terrain and environment. They even mounted them on a conventional 4×4 and found that they work perfectly in Earth-like conditions too – and why shouldn’t they?