The itsy-bitsy spider famously crawled down the water-spout, but actually spiders are capable of movements that would reduce Olympian athletes to tantrums of envy. Now, one arachnid that cartwheels has inspired a German engineer to develop an energy-economic robot spider that he believes will be the vehicle mankind needs to explore Mars.
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The spider was discovered by bionics boffin Dr. Ingo Rechenberg in the Moroccan desert in 2009, but was officially described and named only last month. Meet the nimble Cebrennus rechenbergi, named for its first captor and nicknamed the "flic-flac spider" for its ability to race across the desert sands not on its eight feet, but by cartwheeling.
Perhaps one reason the spider remained unknown until the new millennium is its simple camouflage. It looks like sand and has powerful legs typical of the Sparassidae family, or "huntsman" spiders – a nifty bunch known for their speed and habit of leaping onto their hapless prey.
Also, the Cebrennus is nocturnal, and it burrows. Go find a sand-colored spider in a burrow in the desert at night.
Cebrennus is the only spider known to have that ability to cartwheel out of danger, though other animals have similar abilities.
Rechenberg, who's been studying desert animals for 30 years, says he was inspired the moment he first saw it in action, flipping around at twice its normal walking speed – which is about 1 meter per second. The acrobatic arachnid achieves this by building up a run, then gaining momentum by throwing its long front legs forward. Then it flips its torso into the air and brings its legs around, to land in a rather catlike manner.
Israel has Cebrennus spiders of its own but they're a relatively mundane bunch, jumping on prey and eating it, with no noteworthy antics before or after.
Inspired by the Moroccan model of the spider, Rechenberg, who specializes in bionics at the Technical University in Berlin, set about building a small, 20-cm long robot that could mimic the diminutive beast, because he noticed the movement helped the spiders climb inclines.
To survive on Mars and do anything remotely useful, the machine will have to have greater stamina than the spider. If the spider cartwheels more than, say, five times a day, Rechenberg admits it can die of sheer exhaustion. His robot will need to be a lot more resilient to explore alien planets, but, then, it's a machine, so that sounds doable.
Why Mars? Why not. Because it's there. The robot could also explore the deserts of Chile, but Mars has gripped man's imagination since the planet was noticed millennia ago.
Some scientists think it once harbored life and rather fewer think its depths could still be harboring microscopic beings, in areas where Mars clearly has water – albeit much of it in ice form.
By the way, if you meet a Cebrennus, attractive as you may find it, don't pat it. Most of the Sparassidae are venomous.