A rover on the Moon has metal wheels that can flex around rocky obstacles, then reshape back to their original form. On Earth, surgeons install tiny mesh tubes that can dilate a heart patient’s blood vessels all on their own, without mechanical inputs or any wires to help.
These shape-shifting capabilities are all thanks to a bizarre kind of metal called nitinol, a so-called shape-metal alloy that can be trained to remember its own shape. The decades-old material has become increasingly common in a wide range of everyday applications. And in the next decade, the metal will face its most challenging application yet: a sample return mission on Mars.
Nitinol, made of nickel and titanium, works its magic through heat. To “train” a paper clip made of nitinol, for example, you heat it at 500 degrees Celsius in its desired shape, then splash it in cold water. Bend it out of shape, then return the same heat source, and the metal will eerily slink back into its original form.
The temperature that triggers nitinol’s transformation varies depending on the fine-tuned ratio of nickel to titanium. Engineers can tweak the metal to adapt to a wide array of conditions, making it a key tool in places where complex mechanics won’t fit, like the blood vessels surrounding a human heart or a hinge that positions a solar panel by responding to the sun’s heat.
The Verge spoke with engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center to see how nitinol will play a role in a mission to retrieve humanity’s first cache of pristine Martian soil samples — the second leg of a Mars mission campaign led by NASA and the European Space Agency. Check out the video above to see how and to see nitinol in action. (We promise, it’s not CGI.)