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Curiosity rover's wheels seem a bit tired and show signs of wear and tear, as reported for example in this Discovery News article from May 22, 2013. This damage only increased since then and wheels now show large holes. It doesn't look pretty, and since picture tells a thousand words, here's a photograph showing difference in wear and tear between Sol 34 and Sol 488 (Solar days on Mars since the start of the mission) so you can appreciate the extent of the damage for yourself:

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    Close up and comparison of the gash in the aluminum wheel skin as seen on sol 488 on Dec. 20, 2013 (Source: Discovery News)

This of course got me curious, if wear and tear on aluminum wheel skin is so extensive in under a year and a half (Earth years), why didn't NASA simply use classical car pressure tires? Mars has some atmosphere, so the rover could have a compressor onboard to help control tire pressure at all times, despite Martian days and nights having much larger temperature difference than what we're used to having here on Earth. And some tire designs are good for years in atmosphere with oxygen and used on heavy-duty industrial machinery here on Earth.

So, while admittedly not too knowledgeable on tire technology, I still believe it would be feasible to simply use more conventional technology that has some 100 years of evolution and we trust every day to get us from point A to point B, and perhaps extend it with whatever support technology would be needed to keep them in good health, like a few tire pressure sensors, a compressor with 6 outputs one for each tire and so on. It is possible in automobile industry with current tech to have such automatic tire pressure monitoring and inflation/deflation system (know as Self-inflating Tires, or more technically correct - Central Tire Inflation System or CTIS) work on the go, and use threaded kevlar for outer skin or maybe some other synthetic materials instead of rubber for tire skin and inner tube, so...

What was the reason that NASA decided that Curiosity needs non-conventional, solid metallic tires / tire skin? And, given current rate of wear and tear, how long is the rover estimated to be able to continue driving around? Could this threaten rover's planned longevity?


Update: Damage to the wheels is now apparently much larger than what I initially found through related news articles good 100 Martian days ago. Here's the latest photograph of the left-front wheel of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover showing dents and holes on Sol 490, not even a day old as of the time of this update (red circle around the largest hole is my own addition):

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    NASA's Curiosity Mars rover showing dents and holes on Sol 490 (Source: NASA Mars Science Laboratory MAHLI Raw Images)

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity acquired this image using its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret at the end of the rover's robotic arm, on December 22, 2013, Sol 490 of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, at 13:46:19 UTC.

Looks like Curiosity isn't making the ·--- ·--· ·-·· (JPL) signature Morse code pattern tracks any longer with its wheels in the sand as it navigates the Martian surface. That's a pretty large additional gap there, on top of its designed traction pattern:

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                     Reading the Rover's Tracks (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The straight lines in Curiosity's zigzag track marks are Morse code for JPL, which is short for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover was built and the mission is managed. The "footprint" is more than an homage to the rover's builders, however. It is an important reference mark that the rover can use to drive more precisely via a system called visual odometry.

The Morse code, imprinted on all six wheels, is: .--- (J), .--. (P), and .-.. (L), as indicated in this image.

Quote and image source: NASA JPL / MSL

I wonder what is Curiosity scribbling now on the Martian surface. I hope it's nothing offensive! :)

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4  
No AAA on Mars. –  Mark Adler Dec 21 '13 at 16:15
    
I shall leave this here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airless_tire –  oakad Dec 24 '13 at 0:53
1  
They were supposed to last 5 years. Rather than performing "very well", it looks like a mission ending disaster. Why didn't they use titanium rather than aluminum? –  Wondering Feb 11 at 19:26
    
@Wondering Welcome to Space Exploration! We're not really an open discussion forum but a Q&A website, so I've converted your answer into a comment, since it doesn't really answer the question. More on how our website works can be read in About and Help center. To answer your inquiry though, we already have exactly such question with an answer (and some helpful comments) in Why are Curiosity's wheels aluminum rather than titanium? Cheers! –  TildalWave Feb 11 at 19:36

2 Answers 2

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Mars' temperature range is rather large, with temperatures down to -107 °C measured by the Viking landers. This is below rubber's glass transition temperature of -70 °C, below which rubber becomes brittle. So you can't use rubber.
A rubber tire is heavy. The tread of a normal road tire is more than 1 cm thick, off-road tires are thicker and heavier. It also needs a rim, adding more weight. A wheel that only consists of a rim (roughly speaking) is much lighter.
Punctures are a liability when you can't change the tire. A punctured tire soon disintegrates, and you end up dragging a mess of rubber and steel along, potentially jamming the wheel or ending up underneath the next wheel in line.
Self-healing tires are available. But like puncture repair kits, these rely on having a viscous substance inside the tire that can seal a small hole. Again, Mars' temperature range makes this difficult to apply (the sealant must stay viscous at -100 °C). And no sealant will be able to close a gash as large as the one shown in the photo.

Curiosity's wheel design is based on the earlier Mars rovers, which were studied in detail (wheel abrasion experiment on Sojourner). Some deformation, denting and rupture was expected and designed for (entire presentation on MSL design here).
Photos of a prototype on Earth being put through its paces, dents and holes in the wheels clearly visible. MSL team response to photos:

There was some concern about tears in the rover wheels, but today we got the go-ahead to drive, with no restrictions on distance or drive mode. The tears in the wheels were expected based on testing, and the wheels are designed to survive such damage without affecting mobility.

So, changing the design to rubber or other pliable materials wasn't necessary.

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Resilience:

There is no way that an inflatable tyre of any kind can be used for remote missions, because they are incredibly unreliable. Think about car or bike tyres here on Earth, where we have a fairly small range of temperatures. They puncture easily, they burst, they lose pressure, the rubber degrades etc. When they have a puncture, fixing them is complex - we can't automate it on this planet, let alone sort out puncture repairs on another world with greater temperature extremes.

Weight:

Tyres are heavy. A thin aluminium shell wheel, or even grid wheel is light. And mass is all important when it comes to delta-v.

and most importantly

Lifespan

Curiosity is only expected to run for 2 years. So far it has successfully survived and carried out useful scientific study. I think these wheels have performed extremely well.

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