NASA’s new tyres are ‘virtually indestructible’

While spring tyres are not new, it was only with nickel titanium that the problem of deformation could be surmounted.
Image credit: NASA

Tyres are one of the most important, and often most overlooked, vehicle components. At least until something goes wrong with them. Unlike most places on Earth, if a vehicle on the moon or Mars gets a flat, it is not a simple matter to change it. Enter NASA’s new ‘virtually indestructible’ spring tyres.

The tyres are the latest in a line specifically developed for extraterrestrial vehicles, and are made from nickel titanium, or Nitinol, a metal alloy of nickel and titanium where the two elements are present in roughly equal atomic percentages. Nitinol is also both a shape memory alloy and superelastic.

A shape memory alloy ‘remembers’ its original shape and, when deformed, returns to its pre-deformed shape when heated. Superelasticity means that no heating is necessary for the material to return to its original shape, and that the material exhibits elasticity 10 to 30 times greater than that of ordinary metal.

In combination, this means that the Nitinol tyres do not need to be heated after being deformed to regain their original shape, making them perfectly suited to both the harsh terrain and the lack of readily available heat sources (or tyre changing facilities) in space.

Shape Memory Alloy Tires: Part 2

In one particular moment of serendipity, engineer Colin Creager and Materials Scientist Santo Padula had a conversation that completely changed the path forward.
Video credit: nasaglenn

11 Dec 2017

By Robyn Grimsley
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