NASA’s New ‘Chainmail’ Tires Could ‘Reinvent The Wheel’ For Upcoming Mars Rovers

Suffering a flat tire can be a big setback to any road trip, but it’s something that can be remedied if you’ve got a spare, or possibly by calling roadside assistance. But with the ramifications of a flat tire in outer space being much more serious than they are on Earth, NASA scientists have sought to “reinvent the wheel” with so-called “chainmail” tires that reportedly cannot go flat, while being able to return to their original shape despite exposure to rough and unusual outer space terrains.

As explained by Mother Nature Network, flat tires have been a major concern for NASA, especially when considering that spare tires certainly are not an option for rovers that suffer from such issues while on other planets. While it wasn’t a catastrophic situation for NASA, the space agency spotted some cracks earlier this year in the left middle wheel of its Curiosity rover. The cracks reportedly formed after Curiosity traveled for just about 10 miles over the Martian surface, and while that’s significantly beyond NASA’s expectations for the rover’s wheels, the fact that cracks formed was enough for NASA to want to develop new tire technology for the benefit of its upcoming rovers.

Considering the importance of guarding against such forms of damage, NASA has just come up with the Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) tire, which HuffPost UK described as being impervious to flats and capable of remembering and reverting to their original shape after driving through “impossibly challenging” environments. The latter feature on the chainmail-like tires is made possible by stoichiometric nickel-titanium alloy, which was originally suggested by one of its designers as a way of avoiding dents on the tires used by NASA on its rovers.

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In 2009, NASA’s Glenn Research Center teamed up with Goodyear to develop airless tires with hundreds of steel wires in coil form, with the wires formed into a flexible mesh for increased sturdiness and traction. These steel spring tires were solid for the most part, but scientists observed that they developed dents after repeated instances of intense usage. It was only when NASA engineer Colin Creager and material scientist Santo Padula had a “chance meeting” that the space agency was able to come up with a workaround for the denting that occurred when the steel spring tires supported heavy loads across unfriendly terrain.

According to Padula, who came up with the shape memory alloy solution for NASA’s new “chainmail” tires, nickel-titanium has atomic bonds that cannot break apart upon exposure to wear and tear. This was proven as the SMA tires underwent a battery of tests at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab’s Mars Life Test Facility, performing “impressively” despite the “punishing” conditions.

Even with all the promise shown by the SMA tires, it might be some time before NASA is able to use its new tire technology on its Mars rovers. Still, that remains the ultimate goal, as NASA is hoping to include more instruments and other equipment for science observations and experiments once its next Mars rover explores the Red Planet.

While there’s no existing plan to release these “chainmail” tires to the general public, Mother Nature Network noted that NASA came up with a version of its SMA tires that work on cars and trucks. The video above shows them in action on a Jeep Wrangler as it navigates a rather rough patch of terrain.

[Featured Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Getty Images]