To Mars with Tumbleweed 4 minutes spent reading

To Mars with Tumbleweed

Volkmar Held
As a freelance writer, Volkmar Held reports for voestalpine on topics that move people. The content of his stories ranges from archaeometallurgy to future technologies.

From school to the museum, and off on a space mission. With the support of voestalpine BÖHLER Aerospace GmbH, the Mars rover “Tumbleweed” will be able to investigate the red planet.

Tumbleweed is an unusual space project in every way: it is an idea thought up only by school pupils, includes a complete research facility, and is already part of a museum exhibit, even prior to its first mission.

The idea for Mars

The start of the journey into space began with the first prototype of the Mars rover. It won pupils at Vienna’s Sir Carl Popper School an international space prize in 2017. The idea was to construct a discovery robot in tumbleweed form which would be driven by the winds on Mars, allowing it to investigate large areas of the planet.

The team of pupils comprising Julian Rothenbuchner and Moritz Stephan with their physics teacher, Josef Pürmayr, and later joined by Amelie Finan and Dominik Schmidt, planned the system, wrote computer programs, and configured the first test unit.

"Every single day of this project offered fresh excitement. Thanks to voestalpine, our team can now develop Tumbleweed further. We can learn an awful lot from each another!"
Moritz Stephan

voestalpine BÖHLER Aerospace involved in construction

The team’s élan also persuaded voestalpine. The High Performance Metals Division contributed know-how and financial support to develop Tumbleweed for the Mars simulation mission run by the Austria Space Forum.

"These are enthusiastic young researchers! That’s just how our future engineers should be."
Silvia Platteis, Head of the Investment Management department at voestalpine High Performance Metals GmbH

The research rover is 4 meters in diameter and can withstand the peak winds during storms on Mars (400 km/h is no rarity) thanks to the high-strength structural components provided by voestalpine BÖHLER Aerospace GmbH. Working together with the pupils, the company developed titanium structures of sufficient strength. They also jointly considered how the volumes of recorded data could be intelligently filtered prior to transmission.

High-Tech for Mars

Project leader Alfred Krumphals is an important contact person at voestalpine BÖHLER Aerospace for the team. He is clear that his company will also benefit from the Tumbleweed project, with important findings offering valuable know-how for his business sector.

"We are gaining experience in finishing high-strength materials which we can then apply on products for our aerospace customers. Plus we are also learning more about the use of artificial intelligence in filtering, converting big data into smart data."
Alfred Krumphals, Project Leader

At the heart of the computing unit in the center of the current, third Tumbleweed prototype lies a state-of-the-art computer chip. It is optimized for the demands of artificial intelligence, evaluating the data gathered by each of four optical and infrared cameras, and 14 sensors. The Mars rover transmits the research results to the base station.

Further scenarios

The unusual research device passed its first test in February 2018 during a simulated Mars mission in southwestern Oman. If it is to be used on a Mars mission, it could be ready by late 2020. A model of Tumbleweed can already be viewed in the Austrian Museum of Technology in Vienna.

The team of former pupils is continuing to work on the project, even though their current studies have dispersed them across the world. The close relationship with voestalpine remains, over and above the project itself.

Tumbleweed – a clever strategy

Tumbleweed is a term familiar to us from many Western films. In botany this is well-known diaspore strategy, with the plant balls driven by the wind. Once separated from their roots, this method enables plants – some taking the classic tumbleweed form – to cover large distances in just a short time.
The idea of using rolling research devices built on this principle first arose in the 1970s. Without the use of wheels or motors, they can complete their missions autonomously in inhospitable environments.


Tumbleweed, a highly-efficient Mars rover

Tumbleweed on a test mission in Oman. The photovoltaic modules on the sails of the rover are clearly recognizable (Source: Austria Space Forum).

Volkmar Held