NASA’s new Venus rover relies on “steampunk” mechanisms and Morse code
Venus is not a friendly place to probes. With 90 times the Earth’s atmospheric pressure and surface temperatures that reach 462°C, our neighbour is a volcanic hellscape that slaughters scientific equipment. The Soviets sent a couple of balloons as part of the Vega mission, for example, but these only managed a few hours before being eaten up by Venus’ world of sulphuric-acid hurricanes.
In an attempt to overcome the issues thrown up by Venus’ inhospitable environment, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are turning to Morse code, clockwork computers and World War 1-era tanks.
One of the main problems facing probes to Venus’ surface is the fact that electronic circuitry quickly becomes a bubbling mess. A new NASA-designed computer chip is in the works that can survive Venus-level extremes, but this is still at the proof-of-concept stage. A design funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, called the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), instead solves the problem of high temperatures by avoiding electronic equipment altogether – opting instead for a “steampunk computing” approach.
“Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover,” said Jonathan Sauder, a mechatronics engineer at the JPL. “But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.”
Wind turbines, contained in the centre of the machine, power the rover’s study clockwork mechanisms, regardless of whether it has been flipped upside down. Initially the plan was to create a mode of transport similar to the wind-powered, “Strandbeests” created by Dutch artist Theo Jansen, but this was judged to be too delicate for Venus’ surface. Instead, the team turned to the treads of World War 1 tanks, which can handle craters and rocky planes.
Without using electronic equipment, communication is inevitably a problem. It’s all well and good keeping a rover alive for a year, but how do you get that data back to earth? The current plan is to use radar, sent by an orbiting spacecraft, to a special target on the rover; something Saunder describes as “stealth technology in reverse”. Instead of dispersing radar signals, the rover’s target would be designed to brightly reflect the signal.
Add a rotating shutter to the target, and the rover will be able to turn its reflective radar spot on and off, communicating in Morse code.
The AREE team is still in the early stages of the project, so there’s no guarantee that the steampunk rover will see the light of day. The next step will be for the researchers to select parts of the concept to be refined and developed, so here’s hoping they manage to hone their mechanical, Morse-code explorer.