Spaceflight Insider

JPL proposes exploring Venus with a clockwork rover

Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE)

AREE is a clockwork rover inspired by mechanical computers. A JPL team is studying how this kind of rover could explore extreme environments, like the surface of Venus. Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) proposes taking a page out of a Swiss watchmaker’s handbook to design a long-lived rover to explore Venus’ surface. Utilizing centuries-old mechanical computing concepts, but with a modern upgrade, engineers at JPL hope to design a rover capable of exploring the unforgiving Venusian terrain and returning data to Earth.

Today’s forecast: Cloudy with a high of 864 °F

The surface of Venus is perpetually shrouded from view by heavy cloud cover. Photo Credit: NASA

Though Venus has been called Earth’s sister due to the similarities in size and mass between the two, humanity knows comparatively little about the planet itself. Indeed, the Soviet Venera and Vega programs of the 1970s and 1980s have provided the only surface-based investigations of Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

While the landers returned valuable data, they operated for no more than a couple hours before succumbing to the intense heat and pressure of Venus’ atmosphere. With an average surface temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius) – hot enough to melt lead – and an atmospheric pressure more than 90 times that of Earth’s, even modern hardware would have difficulty operating for very long.

With the hellish surface conditions being a major hurdle to overcome, scientists have had to be content with observations from above the cloud tops.

Tick-tock goes the… rover?

Although technology has made great strides since the Soviet landers, heat is just as deadly to modern electronics as it was in the 1980s. Faced with the difficulty of designing hardware to operate on Venus’ surface, conventional wisdom seemed to dictate one of two paths: developing a cooling system that would work in such extreme conditions, or designing high-temperature electronics.

With a cooling system costing billions of dollars to develop, and heat-tolerant hardware exceeding the design tolerances of a rover, neither seemed a viable path for some designers.

Enter Jonathan Sauder, a mechatronics engineer at JPL and the inspiration behind the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) program. Sauder believes mechanical computing is the key to designing a long-lasting Venusian rover.

“Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover,” Sauder stated in a release issued by JPL. “But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.”

Mechanically driven devices have been around for centuries. Some, like the Antikythera mechanism, were used to compute astronomical events. Others were designed as works of art. Though seemingly less-advanced than electronic devices, mechanical computers have the advantage of being able to operate under conditions that would cripple their modern counterparts.

“When you think of something as extreme as Venus, you want to think really out there,” stated Evan Hilgemann, a JPL engineer working on high-temperature designs for AREE, in the same release.

RIGHT IMAGE: A look inside the AREE rover (next to an astronaut for scale). Wind would be channeled through the rover’s body for primary power. Rotating targets on top could be “pinged” by radar, sending data as Morse code. (Click to enlarge) Images & Caption Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Not only would the rover operate under mechanical guidance, but its communication system would be similarly basic.

Utilizing a mechanism that would re-orient radar-reflective panels, the rover could communicate with an orbiting spacecraft. Far overhead, the spacecraft would beam down a radar signal that would bounce off the rover’s reflective panels. These panels could be oriented in a fashion to allow for simple communication between the two explorers, thus enabling the relaying of data back to Earth.

The program is now in its second phase of development, with engineers determining which components of the concept should be refined and further advanced.

Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE)
Video courtesy of Jonathan Sauder / JPL / NASA



Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

Reader Comments

“Enter Jonathan Sauder, a mechatronics engineer at JPL and brainchild behind the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) program.”

You have it backwards. The AREE program is Sauder’s brainchild, not the other way around. Look up “brainchild”.

Thank you!!!

Gah! You’re correct. That’s what I get for not paying attention. Thanks for reading the article, by the way.

I would hope that this mechanical rover would include a camera and that photos can be transmitted back- raw data would just not be as exciting to the general public – we already know about the high temperatures that could melt led and tremendously high pressure

Not to be argumentative, but exactly how would a fully mechanical camera operate? film would melt, and digital wouldn;t survive. I’m all for images but I’m not seeing how they could retrieve or last in that environment

Clayton Cromley

Thank you for this fascinating article. Just wanted to flag the incorrect use of the word “brainchild.”


Why not just float a balloon at a higher altitude of lower temperature within the tolerances of existing doppler radar and other instruments? Wouldn’t that be way cheaper and get lots more detailed data?

Whether an instrument is on the ground or 10k ft up, the same corrosive atmosphere is going to work on the materials in any event.

That somewhat defeats the purpose of a ground probe. We’re not trying to learn about its atmosphere.

Looks like some of Theo Jansen’s wind powered Strandbeests.

I i propose the possibility of life on Venus that is similar to the life found here on earth near deep sea thermal vents. Also due to the fact Venus rotates so slowly I propose a walking robot powered by wind and sail that stays on the much cooler dark side of Venus. Possibly normal electronics could be used.

You are forgetting the U.S. Pioneer probe which landed on the surface.

It must be noted that Heechee artifacts were found in tunnels below the surface of Venus. Obviously Heechee metal withstood the rigours of temperature and pressure.

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *