Venus isn’t nice. Its floor, roughly 850 levels Fahrenheit, is scorching sufficient for paper to spontaneously combust. Its environment, an oppressive mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide, is dense sufficient to crush a submarine. “I like to think about Venus as turning your oven at residence onto self cleansing mode, but in addition filling it with Straightforward Off,” says Jason Derleth, head of NASA’s Progressive Superior Ideas Program (NIAC), a small slice of the company that funds the exploration of ahead-wanting applied sciences. “That’s nonetheless not as poisonous because the chemical soup it has as its environment. And it’s nonetheless not as scorching.”
Earth’s neighbor, whereas definitely inhospitable to people, is nearly simply as tough for robots. The final time a bot visited the floor of Venus was within the mid-80s, when the Soviet Union despatched its Vega lander to seize knowledge concerning the planet’s soil. It lasted for lower than an hour. “Planetary scientists are very eager about Venus as a result of the info we’ve got is nearly nothing,” says Jonathan Sauder, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Which is why for the final yr, Sauder has been working with fellow JPL engineer Evan Hilgemann and others to construct a rover that would final on Venus for days, if not weeks or months.
The important thing to the rover’s longevity? Holding it decidedly low-tech. The idea rover, referred to as AREE (Automation Rover For Excessive Environments), is a superb instance of counterintuitive drawback fixing. As an alternative of packing excessive-tech electronics into its body, the scientists are constructing a mechanical rover that works with minimal electronics. The boxy, tank-like bot rolls round on treads, making it impervious to Venus’ tough terrain. These treads are powered by way of a wind turbine that captures the planet’s whipping wind gusts and shops that energy inside springs earlier than distributing to the varied techniques on the rover. “For those who simplify the idea fairly a bit, it’s type of like a windup toy or a clock,” says Hilgemann.
NASA packs most of its rovers with superior sensors and digital instruments earlier than it sends them into area. “NASA is all about doing absolutely the most factor you are able to do,” Derleth says. “If you are going to ship a rover into area you need to make it possible for rover can do as a lot science as attainable.” However that conceit is much less efficient on a planet like Venus, the place electronics get fried in a matter of minutes. To counteract the tough surroundings, Sauder and Hilgemann stored the performance so simple as attainable.
In contrast to a picture-based mostly navigation system just like the Curiosity rover, AREE’s treads can stand up to sudden drops and bumps. And as an alternative of counting on a two-means radio to speak knowledge, the Venus rover will use a easy optical reflector to transmit its knowledge to orbiting satellites by flashing radar mild like morse code. It’s not an info-dense system (AREE is projected to transmit 1,000 bits per day, in comparison with Curiosity’s 1 million bits) however that limitation truly works in its favor. By sacrificing smarts for durability, NASA is betting a rover like AREE will last more and journey additional than extra superior rovers—which suggests it may well collect a broader, if much less detailed, swath of data.
NIAC lately funded a brand new part of analysis on AREE, which can permit the researchers to spend the subsequent three years constructing a tough prototype of the rover. This system, which focuses on creating concepts which are 10 to 50 years out, isn’t meant to supply mission-prepared applied sciences. However the truth that AREE may by no means seen the floor of Venus doesn’t hassle Sauder and Hilgemann, who say that it’s much less about constructing mission-prepared tech and extra about altering the best way individuals take into consideration designing for area. “Sometimes we’d say let’s add extra sensors and electronics, however we need to get individuals enthusiastic about the way to use intelligent mechanisms,” Hilgemann says. “We need to change the best way individuals take into consideration doing missions.”
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