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Innovating to Explore Mars: Students and Professor Work with NASA

Innovation: it has defined all key NASA programs, from the famous Apollo missions to the creation of the International Space Station.  Now, NASA is seeking to innovate for the sake of exploring the Red Planet. To do so, it is developing a new breed of Mars Rover with the aid of college and university engineering programs across the country. Hope College engineering professor Dr. Miguel Abrahantes is contributing to this dynamic project. 

mars explorationDr. Abrahantes and a small team of Hope students have been working to develop the Rover’s highly unusual movement programming.  Rather than rolling on wheels (a simple yet limited option) the new Rover will be constructed from 12 tetrahedrons, earning it the nickname “12 TET.”  

The basis of the 12 TET design is a series of nodes connected to struts that extend and contract on demand.  This unique design allows the Rover to adjust its shape to the task at hand (and to climb over obstacles) by shifting its center of balance. On a level surface, its movement will closely resemble a tumbleweed rolling end-over-end. To view a simulation of the Rover’s movement, follow this link: http://ants.gsfc.nasa.gov/aviformat.html

Abrahantes’ team has developed a simplified 4 TET Rover in order to test various gait options and programming. In their quest for an efficient design, they examined in particular the benefits and drawbacks of strut control versus node control.  They found that manipulating the struts into a tumbling motion is a relatively easy operation for the robot, but requires the operator to perform taxing math equations.  This option also produces heavy wear on the machine.  Alternatively, node control is simpler for the operator, more complex for the robot, and results in the desired crawling movement.   

Several other teams are participating in 12 TET research.  Georgia’s Mercer University is also examining gait control and programming, while other institutions are investigating electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and communication systems.  Participants were selected from a large pool of applicants to the NASA Exploration System Mission Directorate Higher Education Project.  Funding is provided by the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. 

Looking to the future, Dr. Abrahantes hopes to continue the development of the TET models, foreseeing their use in both bomb diffusion and deep sea investigation.  He also hopes to collaborate with the University of Kansas’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) in order to develop a TET robot that could measure ice at the poles.  Other researchers believe that these wheel-less tetrahedral robots may enter service as early as 2012.

    For more information about the project, please contact Dr. Miguel Abrahantes at abrahantes@hope.edu.