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NASA shows off Mars rover tires that bounce back into shape

The next Mars rover could ride across the alien planet on a new kind of tire that remembers its shape after running over rocks.

This high-tech tire could have applications on both Mars and Earth.
Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

NASA's Curiosity rover has tender feet. The Mars exploration vehicle is suffering tire damage from the rocky terrain, so NASA is looking for ways to improve the tires for its next rover. The space agency has come up with a high-tech tire that remembers its shape and looks like it's made out of chain mail.

NASA's Glenn Research Center and tire maker Goodyear invented the original Spring Tire in the mid-2000s. It used coiled steel wires woven into a mesh pattern, but the steel deformed when faced with rough Mars-style test courses. NASA engineers then hit on a brilliant solution: using the shape-memory alloy nickel titanium instead. 

"We can actually deform this all the way down to the axle and have it return to shape," NASA engineer Santo Padula says in a video about the tire.

NASA tested the new version of the tire on a brutal track littered with large rocks and it performed admirably:

Curiosity's tires are made from solid aluminum, which is tough, but not tough enough to prevent cracks and breaks in the treads. A NASA site devoted to the development of the superelastic tires says the invention could carry heavier payloads and allows rovers to cover more ground on Mars or the moon. They could also one day be used for vehicles designed to carry humans at higher speeds across alien landscapes.

NASA's next scheduled Mars rover mission is set to take place in 2020, though the current design for the 2020 rover shows aluminum wheels similar to the ones on Curiosity. NASA has not announced any changes to that design. 

While NASA developed the tire for Mars missions, it also sees it as a viable alternative to pneumatic tires here on Earth, particularly for off-road applications.