The unconventional lander uses a learning algorithm to move about.
The most difficult part of any space mission is the landing. If anything goes wrong, it’s most likely going to be there. When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, it was lowered via a winch on a rocket-propelled platform. Now, NASA’s looking at a completely different strategy. Called the “Super Bot Ball”, it’s a jumble of poles and wires that can survive an orbital landing with a payload and still explore the rocky wilderness of alien planets.
The Super Bot Ball uses a series of interlocking rods and cables, using structures known as “tensegrities”. There’s not a rigid connection in the entire device, which allows it to absorb the full impact of an orbital drop and keep going, while still carrying a payload of fragile sensors safely suspended in the middle.
Of course, controlling such a contraption isn’t as straightforward as the typical rover. To compensate, engineers are developing learning systems so it can pilot itself. The process is similar to evolution, where bad ideas are tossed out in favor of more efficient ones. Eventually, when given a task, the idea is that the bot will know which wires and poles to flex to best maneuver there. It might even be possible to drop dozens, or hundreds of these bots on a planet and have them all learn together.
The project is still in the early stages, but NASA intends for it to drop on Saturn’s moon Titan first. It’s an intriguing idea that seems much more fit to handle the unknown than the traditional wheel-and-tread rovers. Plus, it looks like a tangled Katamari, which is always a good thing.