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A View from Brittany Sauser

NASA's New Planetary-Exploring Robot

Using a simple design, Axel can climb over steep and rocky terrain, even when upside down.

  • February 6, 2009

NASA’s newest prototype exploration rover has been dubbed Axel–a name that fits its simple design. Built with minimal complexity, the rover is designed to transverse the toughest of terrain and even rappel off cliffs. It will be equipped with cameras, wireless communications capabilities, and sensors to operate autonomously, and a “trailing link”, or lever, for gathering planetary materials. However, Axel’s design, which includes a deployable tether, is intended to be part of larger, modular robotic spacecraft that could one day explore planets like Mars.

The Axel rover. Credit: NASA

The rover, being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and researchers at the California Institute of Technology, uses only three actuators: one to control each of its two wheels and a third to control the lever. This allows it to operate upside down and right side up, turn in place, and follow difficult paths. The lever has a scoop for gathering scientific data and can adjust its two stereo cameras by as much as 360 degrees.

Axel’s electronics and scientific payload are housed in its cylindrical body. This space also houses a tether that can be unreeled so the rover can descend from a larger spacecraft.

Most impressive is Axel’s versatile mobility. It can use different wheel types and sizes, from large foldable ones to inflatable ones, allowing it to travel over steep and rocky terrain, and explore deep craters. The diverse wheels also help it navigate rough, hard landings. The video below shows the rover in action.

Axel is designed to be arranged in a family of configurations to carry larger payloads:

The Axel Rover Family. Top left, Axel is stowed for flight; top right, it is in its surface mobility configuration; bottom left, two Axels carry a single payload module; bottom right, three Axels transport two payloads. Credit: NASA

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