NASA is getting ready to melt some space nerd hearts with an adorable little robot named PUFFER — which stands for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robots — designed to explore alien worlds like Mars and Europa. The "origami-inspired" rover can fold itself to become as small as a smartphone, but will take on an enormous task once it's ready for use.
Gif by Gizmodo via NASA
Its small size, light weight and flexibility make it an excellent option for exploring some of the harshest landscapes in the solar system. According to a series of videos the space agency posted over the weekend, PUFFER can survive falls from as high as 3m under simulated Martian gravity, and scale rocky inclines at slopes of up to 45 degrees. NASA envisions robots like PUFFER traversing lava tubes on Mars, or icy "chaos terrains" on Jupiter's moon Europa.
Though PUFFER is still in development as an 18-month-long collaborative project involving NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UC Berkeley, and Distant Focus Corporation in Champaign, Illinois, the team has already been testing out prototypes on pseudo Martian terrain. Look at this intrepid little baby fold up its wheels and adjust its orientation to clamber around an obstacle course!
Or, watch it PUFFER go for a long walk. So adventurous!
The most squeal-worthy part is that PUFFERs are designed to be packed into a larger parent rover or spacecraft, which can deploy its miniature robots on a planet's surface. Like baby seahorses escaping their daddy's belly, the little PUFFERS will scatter off, ready to take on their tasks.
"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," the team wrote in a fact sheet from 2016. "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."
This year, the PUFFER team plans to test out these little guys in the Mojave Desert, as a practice run for Mars. My only suggestion is to have these bad boys piloted by kittens — then my mind will explode.