If you’re a tech wiz whose ultimate dream is to create something that might be crawling on another planet someday, that opportunity has landed.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is teaming up with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program to crowdsource the universe — or at least the human population — for a design to be used in developing their AREE (Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments) rover concept. AREE needs an obstacle avoidance sensor that would keep it from crashing into anything on the already hostile surface of Venus, which is why NASA recently launched the "Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover" challenge. JPL and the NASA Tournament Lab have put the challenge on the heroX crowdsourcing platform.
"This is an exciting opportunity for the public to design a component that could one day end up on another celestial body," said Ryon Stewart, challenge coordinator for the NASA Tournament Lab at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "NASA recognizes that good ideas can come from anywhere and that prize competitions are a great way to engage the public's interest and ingenuity and make space exploration possible for everyone."
It doesn’t matter who you are, so long as you have the brains to pull it off. The only catch is that the sensor can’t be electronic. Venus has an average temperature of 840 degrees Fahrenheit (hot enough to melt lead into ooze) and most electronics can’t take the heat of environments over 250 degrees. Even a nuclear-powered submarine couldn’t make it on such an inhospitable planet.
Out of all the missions that have been sent to Venus, no more than a dozen have survived long enough to make contact with the surface before dying a fiery death in what could easily be considered Dante’s seventh circle of hell. AREE will be the first spacecraft to land on the surface of Venus since the Soviet Vega 2 touched down, and then perished, in 1985.
Venus supposedly wasn’t always this unwelcoming. It is thought to have been something of a sister planet to Earth, except at one point it decided to be a rebel and turn into an inferno.
AREE is intended to be a wind-powered rover that can withstand months creeping across the Venusian landscape, studying it up close and finding out potential reasons the planet named for the Greco-Roman goddess of love morphed into the toxic, scorching realm it is now. It needs to be able to detect upcoming obstacles as it does this. It needs to tackle everything from rocks to crevices to steep terrain. And because electronics are out of the question, NASA needs the hive mind to come up with something that will traverse Venus and actually stay alive.
"When faced with navigating one of the most challenging terrestrial environments in the solar system, we need to think outside the box," said JPL senior mechatronics engineer and AREE principal investigator Jonathan Sauder. "That is why we need the creativity of makers and garage inventors to help solve this challenge."
By the way, not that you likely need any more incentive then... well, NASA, but there is a first-place prize of $15,000 up for grabs, with $10,000 for the second-place winner, and $5,000 for third place.
Now go and start tinkering with things in your garage.