JPL proposes exploring Venus with a clockwork rover
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
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.