This Cube-Shaped Robot Is Designed to Tumble Across Asteroids


After sending a rover millions of miles away to explore an extraterrestrial body, it would be a shame to have the mission derailed because it lands on its back. This has become a growing concern for NASA as they look into investigating asteroids and comets that have low-gravity conditions and uneven surfaces. Traditional rovers that travel on wheels can’t function upside down, but the Hedgehog robot is designed to operate at full capacity no matter which side it lands on. 

The new robot would navigate small bodies by hopping and tumbling across their terrain, rather than rolling on a set of wheels. Fly wheels in the cube’s interior spin then abruptly brake, using the leftover momentum they create to send the Hedgehog toppling forward. This technology could be adjusted to make calculated movements or long-distance leaps. It’s even able to maneuver out of sinkholes by spinning like a tornado and launching itself into the air. 

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have teamed up with Stanford University and MIT to develop the concept. Two prototypes have been tested on Earth and in a zero-g aircraft, where it was proven to stand up to the conditions of a low-gravity small body. 

NASA’s Hedgehog prototype is outfitted with eight spikes that act as “feet” and protect its body from rugged terrain. They can also be used to hold instruments such as thermal probes. With all its cameras and devices attached, the robot could weigh up to 20 pounds, which is barely anything under the micro-gravity of an asteroid. The Hedgehog is currently in Phase II of its development, and NASA looks forward to the day when it may be capable of assessing conditions and navigating on its own. 

[h/t: Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA]