The hedgehog will replace traditional vehicles that get stuck in sinkholes on comets and result in ending space missions.
For exploring comets and asteroids, NASA uses vehicles that move on wheels. But these spacecrafts do not always work according to the plan. They often get stuck in a deep sinkhole on planets, lose the contact and result in ending the mission.
NASA engineers are now working on a low-gravity vehicle that will flip, tumble and bounce around the cold, icy planets and will gather valuable information for the national space agency. They are calling these vehicles “Hedgehog.”
“Traditional Mars rovers, for example, roll around on wheels and they can’t operate upside down,” said NASA. “But on a small body, such as an asteroid or a comet, the low gravity conditions and rough surfaces make traditional driving all the more hazardous.”
Hedgehog is a new robot that is especially designed to overcome the challenge of traveling over those small bodies. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge are jointly working to develop the Hedgehog.
“Hedgehog is a different kind of robot that would hop and tumble on the surface instead of rolling on wheels. It is shaped like a cube and operates no matter which side it lands on.” Issa Nesnas, leader of JPL team said.
Researchers have already tested two hedgehog prototypes in microgravity environment back in June 2015. “We demonstrated for the first time our Hedgehog Prototypes performing controlled hopping and tumbling in comet-like environment.” JPL said.
These hedgehog robots displayed different types of maneuvers that can work well on various surfaces such as sandy, slippery, icy and crumbly. Researchers are also trying to make them more self-controlled. So, they can do their job more accurately and require fewer instructions from the earth.
Researchers suggest that the Hedgehog robot will have eight spikes and will weigh more than 20 pounds with instruments like cameras and spectrometers will install in it. It will cover long distances by using spikes and short distances by rotating. It will also perform “Tornado” maneuver in which robot will aggressively launch itself from the rough surface.
“The geometry of Hedgehog spikes has a great influence on its hopping trajectory. We have experimented with several spike configurations and found that a cube shape provides the best hopping performance. The cube structure is also easier to manufacture and package within a spacecraft.” Benjamin Hockman, engineer from Stanford said.
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The hedgehog robot will be relatively low-cost, smaller and lighter, compared to the traditional rover. Several robots will be packed together and sent in outer space on a single flight.