Sometime in the future … would Mars watchers think a small “Death Star” was rolling across the surface like a tumbleweed?

Nope. It could be a very peaceful rover designed in Raleigh.

Two NCSU researchers have designed a wind-driven “tumbleweed rover” without solid sides to move over Mars’ rock fields.

They believe the rover could move much better than previous rovers send to the Red Plant, wrote in a newly published paper.

“There is quite a bit of interest within NASA to pursue the tumbleweed rover design, but one of the questions regarding the concept is how it might perform on the rocky surface of Mars,” said Dr. Andre Mazzoleni, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NCSU and co-author of a paper describing the research. “We set out to address that question.”

Mazzoleni worked with Dr. Alexander Hartl on the project in which they developed computer models of a round rover with a surface of links that don’t form a solid barrier.

It’s also designed to be light so wind can blow the device – which would be at least 6 meters, or some 19 feet, in diameter – across the rocks. 

Mars’ extensive rock fields pose tremendous challenges to navigation.

“This model is a tool NASA can use to assess the viability of different designs before devoting the time and expense necessary to build prototypes,” Mazzoleni said.

The researchers concede the tumbleweed would lack the kind of precise controls used in other rovers. However, they also point out it would not need power for movement. 

The paper was published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.