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Australia’s earliest tractor and deep space exploration

What does Australia’s earliest tractor have in common with Mars landing vehicles? The two surprising similarities are terrain and wheels.

NASA visits the outback

In 2019, NASA scientists together with members of the joint European–Russian ExoMars mission visited Australia’s outback to learn lessons about the oldest convincing evidence of life on Earth.

Did you know that the rocks in the Pilbara region are approximately the same age as those on Mars, ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 billion years old? This field trip provided essential knowledge that could be directly applied to the mission plan for landing a rover on the red planet.

Redesigning wheels for Mars

So why, with so many innovative improvements and advances in rubber technology, did NASA choose to develop metal tyres for a vehicle destined to explore the surface of Mars?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that the rover mission to Mars has cost well over $1 billion USD and tractor tyres, regardless of quality, are not puncture proof. A puncture on Mars could end the mission.

In the 1960s, NASA began to develop its own tyre technology for the first manned mission to the moon in 1972. The vehicle used large flexible wire mesh wheels with stiff inner frames to prevent over deflection and, just like the wheels on the EB tractor, thin tread strips were used to enhance traction in soft lunar soil.

This is where the similarities between early tractor wheels and Mars landing vehicles end.

A tyre with a broad width and mesh like tread and sidewalls, features a logo with
METL Bicycle Tyre 2022 designed and manufactured by The SMART Tire Company, Smart Tire Company

Introducing nitinol

The technology, type of metal and engineering principles adopted for the wheels on the EB are very different to those adopted by NASA for their rover vehicle.

Today, tyres designed for space exploration are made from nitinol, a nickel and titanium alloy with extraordinary ‘super elastic’ (which has the ability to deform) and ‘shape memory’ capabilities (that is, the ability to return to its resting state without being damaged).

These tyres are impervious to punctures, do not require maintenance, are lightweight and designed to perform in the most extreme environments.

The company has developed tyres for automotive, cycling, agriculture, trucking and aerospace applications while also creating the ultimate lunar tyre designed to carry multiple astronauts and heavy cargo across the south pole of the moon.

Perhaps one day, rubber tyres will be superseded by metal tyres. I wonder what Alfred and Ernest McDonald would make of that?

Explore more

McDonald EB tractor

In 2021, the Museum acquired the EB tractor for the National Historical Collection.

Material World

The METL bike tyre is on display as part of the Material World exhibition.

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