NASA's Adorable Pop-Up Rovers Are Designed to Explore Harsh Alien Terrains

PUFFERs can explore lava tubes, caves, crevasses, steep slopes, cliffs, and other hazardous areas on other worlds.

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Mar 13 2017, 4:20pm

Planetary rovers have a long history of exhibiting cuteness in the line of duty, from the lonely selfies taken by the NASA Curiosity rover to the maudlin poetry of the Chinese Yutu lunar vehicle.

But now, a new rover platform called PUFFER (short for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robots) has upped the aww factor to near excruciating levels.

A PUFFER says hello. Video: NASA/YouTube

These origami-inspired vehicles are currently in development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and are designed to tackle the kinds of tricky, high-risk terrain that have remained off limits to bulky, expensive rovers like Curiosity, which is the size of a minivan.

As the name suggests, PUFFERs can fold themselves up into compact, lightweight packages that could be easily stowed onboard a spacecraft, only to "pop up" when deployed on the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other planetary targets. Low-cost, durable, and small enough to fit into caves, lava tubes, icy crevasses, and other tight spots, PUFFERs have the potential to explore hazardous areas where other explorers dare not roll.

Read More: Watch NASA's 'Blue Collar' Mars Rover in Action

Fortunately for fans of cute robots, NASA posted a series of videos on Sunday showing off the rover's sweet moves. For instance, check out this slick limbo trick for navigating constricted spaces.

How low can PUFFER go? Video: NASA/YouTube

PUFFER is also a brave base-jumper, and can survive drops from heights of at least three meters.

PUFFER takes a giant leap. Video: NASA/YouTube

The robot is able to scale gravelly inclines of at least 45-degrees, potentially allowing it to ascend alien mountains.

PUFFER the mountaineer. Video: NASA/YouTube

Plus, it can also climb slippery slopes by ingeniously adjusting its wheel orientation to gain traction.

PUFFER the ice-climber. Video: NASA/YouTube

In addition to its ability to handle rough terrain, PUFFERs are long-distance rollers, as evidenced by this sped-up video of the rover taking a 250-meter hike along a forest trail. For context, the Curiosity rover rarely drives over 100 meters at a time.

PUFFER's quarter-kilometer stroll. Video: NASA/YouTube

The JPL PUFFER team is currently collaborating with UC Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab and the Distant Focus Corporation to design foldable instruments and hardware that can be integrated into the novel pop-up structure. The idea is to bundle several PUFFERs into lander missions to moons and planets, where they could be continually deployed, collected, and re-deployed by a "parent" rover. This technique would dramatically extend the exploratory reach of surface missions.  

"A larger parent rover could use a collection of PUFFERs to explore extreme terrains that are easier to access with a small, low-cost "child" rover," team leads said in 2016 project report. "When the parent spacecraft finds an exciting region for exploration, it simply ejects one or more PUFFERs, which then pop-up and go on to explore the target of interest."

That's right: Like something out of a Pixar movie, the future of planetary exploration may involve a mother-rover packed with tiny pop-up explorers that do her bidding. So bring it on, PUFFERs, because we are ready for the next giant leap in space-cute.

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