NASA’s proposed “Super Ball Bot” — which looks like a squishable mess of ropes and tent poles — could hold the key to making landing a rover on another planet easier and far less expensive, researchers say.

Vytas SunSpiral and Adrian Agogino at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and their colleagues suspect there might be a way to make solar system exploration much simpler and cheaper, by embedding science instruments inside a flexible, deformable robotic exoskeleton.

This spherical structure might be able to land without assistance, absorbing most of the shock of impact itself and so saving mass needed for more complex landing gear.

Once the spacecraft has reached an extraterrestrial surface, it could use this same structure to roll around without wheels, propelling itself by making slight tweaks to its shape.

The design relies on the concept of tensegrity. Tensegrity structures consist of rigid components (such as hollow, cylindrical rods) connected by flexible materials (such as elastic cable).

The target considered is Saturn’s moon Titan, which boasts an atmosphere which can slow the spacecraft’s descent enough so that the robot can be dropped, sans airbag or parachute, from 100 kilometres or more above the surface.

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