We have bad news for future space adventurers who also happen to be major gearheads. Odds are, you won’t be ripping any billowing burnouts on distant worlds. For that fact, the future of off-roading right here on Earth could be filled with less rubber and more, uh, nickel titanium. That’s the alloy NASA has developed to create a new kind of airless mesh tire that can flex over rough terrain, then return to its original shape.
We’d love get all scientific and explain exactly how this works, but NASA has put together the video up top that attempts to cover the basics. All we see is a mesh wheel going over a rock, with a brief animated pull-out showing colored dots moving around. Apparently, the molecules in this alloy don’t like to adopt new shapes like, say, steel does. So when something moves the nickel titanium mesh, the mesh moves right back.
The space-age (pun intended) design certainly makes sense for exploratory rovers – manned or unmanned – that have no roads to follow and no roadside assistance to call if a tire goes flat. For that fact, there isn’t even any air where these things are going, and the last thing you want on an important space mission is to get sidelined because of a tire. We get grouchy if we miss a movie because of a flat – imagine spending several years and billions of dollars only to lose it all because the rover can’t rove?
NASA has also posted a video of its new mesh tire on a Jeep, suggesting the technology could also be put to good use right here. It’s certainly plausible, but as cool as it would be to brag about having a set of nickel titanium tires, we suspect it would also be very expensive. NASA hasn’t mentioned any cost, but considering titanium alone goes for about $2,500 per pound, well you get the idea.
In other words, stay tuned for future developments, but don’t go ditching your cleated super swampers just yet.