It almost sounds like an oxymoron. A rover that would survive Venus? How could anything survive that toxic atmosphere without getting vaporized?
What scientists in the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program have come up with is an idea so awesomely steampunk that it would make the best neo-Victorian accessory ever even if it never ventures into space. The Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) looks more like a distant relative of the Antikythera Mechanism than a planet crawler, but this piece of clockwork is currently being evaluated by NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.
Not many things can survive a planet with an atmosphere ten times denser than Earth, with daytime highs hot enough to liquefy lead (about 864 degrees Fahrenheit) and a surface pressure that multiplies our planet’s by 90 and could crumple most machinery like a huge invisible hand. NASA has never sent a lander to Venus because of these extremes. Russian spacecraft previously sent to Venus relied on expensive cooling equipment and extra protection from its brutal environment, and it still survived no more than several hours. Solar power is pretty much out of the question since the sun’s rays struggle to penetrate through its thick swirling clouds.
The vision for this rover relies Venusian winds blowing through a turbine to wind up the spring in its innards, which would then use shafts and clutches to transfer power that would move it across the surface. Inspired by pre-electronic mechanical computers, the gears of JPL mechatronics engineer Jonathan Sauder’s imagination dreamed up the rover whose technology goes in reverse. Not that it wouldn’t encounter some alien obstacles. Winds on Venus aren’t exactly superfast. They blow at about .7 to 3 mph, and while that isn’t exactly warp speed, it’s much faster in the thick atmosphere of Venus than rush-hour traffic.
Such a rover will also need to be made out of materials that won’t melt or get crushed like a soda can underfoot within seconds of entering the Venusian atmosphere. There also need to be some brainstorming involved in how something that operates like steampunk gadgetry would communicate with electronics. The potential solution is just as retro: Morse code. An orbiter could fly to Venus with the rover and then ping it back and forth using radar, and the rover’s radar target could use a rotating shutter in front that would open and close to transmit a Morse code message to the orbiter. It would still be extremely slow and without any way of telling the rover what to do.
The instruments aboard the rover would also be limited.
"Mechanical instruments would be fairly crude," Saunder explained. "There is currently a lot going on in the area of high-temperature electronic instruments. This has moved us to a hybrid rover, where the mobility and power systems are done mechanically, and then the instruments are run electrically."
NASA is still interested, so Saunder and the JPL team must be doing something right. AREE has leveled up to phase two of development and received funding for another two years. With the team are refining and prototyping select parts of it, the rover’s mission could go like clockwork even in the extremes of Venus.
(via Sky and Telescope)