Designing planet rovers that tumble

9:48pm, September 18, 2001

As soon as 2009, Mars could become a playground for earthlings wielding giant beach balls. The earthlings would actually stay home, but from there they could control 6-meter-diameter inflatable spheres sent to roam the Red Planet.

NASA researchers are currently testing such spheres, dubbed tumbleweed balls, in the Mojave Desert. Counting on Martian winds to blow the balls along, the researchers are hoping that the giant, carbon dioxidefilled balloons will be able to travel much greater distances than wheeled rovers can.

The head of the project, Jack A. Jones of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., predicts that the balls could cover thousands of kilometers on Mars. In contrast, the little, wheeled Sojourner vehicle, which arrived on Mars in 1997, wandered no more than a few meters from its lander.

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