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NASA’s New Robot for Exploring Other Planets Is Like None Other

© NASA.gov VideoSuper Ball Bot Drop and Roll
Super Ball Bot Drop and Roll - Sputnik International
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Despite all the predictions from futurologists over the years on how robots would look and work, NASA’s newest bot aimed at exploring distant worlds proves them all wrong. It’s not a humanoid or a mechanical animal from science fiction, but resembles a geometric structure and was actually inspired by a baby toy.

ESA (European Space Station) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on board the International Space Station Dec. 13th, 2014 took this night exposure of the Earth showing an Aurora with city lights over the Baltic countries of northern Europe and England. - Sputnik International
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NASA has unveiled the Super Ball robot, the space agency’s newest tool for space exploration specifically designed for landing safely on distant planets with unstudied terrains and landscapes, always a challenge for spacecraft and exploration vehicles.

The creation, designed by engineers from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, resembles a baby toy made of wire and rods that is indestructible, and as such scientists believe it can handle strong impacts like those caused by landing on a planet’s surface. The idea came to NASA’s developers when they first saw the toy falling — it was absorbing impact of landing on the ground surprisingly well — and they decided that this physical principle, known as tensegrity, is perfect for space robotics.

© Amazon.com (screenshot)Manhattan Toy Skwish Classic
Manhattan Toy Skwish Classic - Sputnik International
Manhattan Toy Skwish Classic

The term tensegrity was initially invented by American architect Buckminster Fuller, who described it as the principle of “structural-relationship” in which the “shape [of structure] is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors.” One common example of tensegrity structure in nature, according to Smithstonian.com, is a spider web, which is incredibly strong and yet remains flexible.

“You can throw it on the ground really hard and you’re not going to break it,” Vytas SunSpiral, one of the Super Ball’s constructors, explained at a symposium earlier this year, referring to the children’s toy. “We’re like, ‘Hey, that’s a landing robot!’”

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NASA engineers noted that such structures could be built with seemingly fragile components that are capable of distributing tension and compression across the entire structure.

As a result, the Super Ball bot, designed on the tensegrity principle, can switch from rigid structure to a fluid one and squeeze into tight places. That means it can be easily manipulated in landscapes full of various obstacles. It is also lightweight, unlike many other space-exploring machines.

“We’ve broken all the rules of traditional robotics designs,” SunSpiral concluded.

Super Ball is also relatively cheap to produce, according to NASA’s presentation video. The agency hopes to deploy the bots in groups to explore Saturn’s moon Titan.

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