The Tumbleweed Rover: A six-foot balloon-like robotic device, designed by NASA to record conditions on Mars’ polar ice caps, or to explore other planets, and perhaps to search for water.
It looks funny, a gigantic, white, semi-deflated beach ball rolling slowly across the Antarctic ice, driven by the wind. But with a design that allows it to act as its own parachute, airbag, and transportation for multiple scientific instruments, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea for use in space.
NASA is testing the Tumbleweed in Antarctica to see how it withstands extreme cold. It successfully completed its 70-kilometre roll across the continent’s interior in February, having previously been on a trip across the Greenland glacier. The device will end up being, ideally, about two metres in diameter, and weigh about 40 kilograms.
Being propelled only by wind, the rover sometimes came to a stop, but its peak speed was 16 km/h, and it managed to maintain an average speed of 1.3 km/h throughout the journey. Instruments inside were maintained at a safe temperature despite the ridiculously cold outside temperatures.
Tumbleweed will collect information about air temperature, humidity, pressure, and light intensity and transmit the information back to Earth. It will be able to search for signs of water from the planet’s surface, discovering things that can’t be seen from orbit.