One of the main problems involving interplanetary travel, is weight reduction. Due to the expansive distances involved, the spacecraft need to travel light to conserve fuel. Given the need for lightweight equipment and devices, NASA has been busy developing a tensegrity rover for use in future extra-planetary exploration missions.
The tensegrity rover is based on a new type of design that uses rods and cables for locomotion. The new design uses a series of rods and cables to roll around. By changing the tension and the length of the cables, the rover is able to move around in a novel way somewhat reminiscent of more biological approaches to motility. The design also allows the rover to absorb impacts efficiently, which means falling over cliffs and rolling down hills and mountainsides may not pose any problems for the rover.
While the new rover design ambles about in an ungraceful and somewhat silly manner, it does its job quite well moving across a flat surface by constantly deforming its frame only to revert to its original shape a few moments later.
The design may be used in a possible exploratory mission to Titan, the largest of Saturn's 62 moons. Due to the nature of the design, the tensegrity rover can be compacted into a small area for travel, allowing a spacecraft to carry a number of these rovers for multiple deployments. This means that NASA can gather information form multiple sites in one mission.
Since the new rover design can handle strong impacts, the rover will not need airbags and parachutes. This will bring down production costs as well as reduce the overall weight of the rover. These new "Super Ball Bot" tensegrity rovers could be dropped from a height of 62 miles above Titan and bounce a few times before settling on the surface of the moon undamaged and ready for action.
While a potential mission to Titan may still be years or decades away, development of the rover will continue and the world may see the rover in action in missions closer to home. If the design proves feasible, the rover may also be part of future missions to the moon or to Mars.