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Springing back into shape

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 11:49am
Paul Livingstone
Paul Headshot with Name and TitleToday, a number of popular blogs called attention to one of R&D’s 2010 award-winning technologies, the Spring Tire. Highlighted on Gizmodo and SlashGear, the Spring Tire is one of the fruits of the mandate for manned space exploration that until recently had been ramping up for a return to the Moon and, presumably, beyond.

The tire, built last year, is constructed from 800 load bearing springs. From a distance it looks a lot like the tire that allowed the lunar roving vehicle (LRV) from the Apollo missions cruise the landscape in relative security. The tire was an overlapping mesh of zinc-coated woven steel strands in bias-ply configuration attached to an aluminum-spun rim and discs of formed aluminum. Titanium chevrons covered half of the contact area to provide traction. Hidden inside was a bump-stop frame to protect the hub.

The new tire, as is to be expected, is quite a bit different. While working on the same knowledge that metals would be the best options for surviving harsh extraterrestrial conditions (something rubber could never do), the Spring Tire has a lot more provision for failure prevention. Designed to carry heavier vehicles for longer periods of time than the LRV, the new tire is made from metallic springs that are both stiff, structurally, but also able to give way quickly when encountering an obstacle. The 800-spring design also ensure there is no single point failure mode. Damage to one or two springs won’t compromise the function of the tire.

spring-tire-smallAlso, the energy used to deform the tires is returned when the springs bounce back. This might be a crucial feature when determining the range of an autonomous or manned electric or fuel-cell vehicle.

Unfiltered radiation degrades rubber, so this tire is obviously a good fit for off-Earth transport. But the tire is also available for a variety of other uses, such as mining or navigation in areas of the Earth where a punctured tire would be a major inconvenience. The Spring Tire has been successfully tested on a variety of terrain using NASA’s manned Lunar Electric Rover, NASA’s autonomous Scarab roving vehicle, and a commercial all-terrain vehicle.

NASA’s Innovation Partnership Program is behind the technology, which is one of a multitude of innovation outreach efforts by the space agency to engage the public in an R&D process that has traditionally belonged to off-limits laboratories. Operating within various funding structures, including the well known Small Business Innovation Research grants, the space agency’s innovation outreach projects range from the expected, such as the Spring Tire, to the high-risk and highly unusual, such as power beaming technology and nano-satellite design.

While I was not fortunate enough to have seen the power beaming competition that was eventually won by the Spaceward Foundation, I’ve seen the Spring Tire at work at NASA’s “Sand Box” SLOPE Facility at Glenn Research Center, and have also seen the tires attached to the Scarab vehicle. It’s not really a re-invention of the wheel, but it’s good to know it’s there when we do return to the Moon, or finally get to Mars.
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