Much like the goddess it’s named after, the planet Venus is unforgiving. At its surface, pressure is equal to that encountered 3,000 feet below Earth’s oceans, and temperatures average above 850 degree Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to fry conventional electronic equipment. Add sulfuric acid rain and dense cloud cover that makes solar power practically impossible, and it’s clear why the record for the longest survival time of a Venus rover — held by the USSR’s Venera 13 probe — is a mere 127 minutes.
Suffice it to say that the next mission to the surface of Venus will be difficult, but NASA is known for overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges. The agency is now investigating new ways to keep a probe functioning in the planet’s formidable atmosphere, the most intriguing of which removes electronics all together and instead focuses on developing a mechanical machine.
In theory, this mechanical rover would function without much of the electronic components we’ve grown accustomed to. Computers, batteries, and electronic sensors would be replaced by clockwork mechanisms, such as gears and springs. They’re calling it the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE).
“We realized that there are two places that make a lot of sense for something like this, where electronics don’t survive,” Jonathan Sauder, a technologist and mechatronics engineer working on the project, told IEEE Spectrum. “One is Venus, because the longest we’ve been able to survive on the surface of Venus is two hours because electrical systems overheated overhead, and one is around Jupiter, because of the high radiation environment that disrupts electronics.”
The AREE team has gone through a few designs for the rover, one of which was inspired by artist Theo Jansen’s semiautonomous Strandbeest sculptures. A later phase featured tank treads that enable it to move with power supplied by an internal wind turbine. The team expects to go through many more concepts — perhaps one with wheels — before settling on a final design.
“Basically, what we’re doing is developing some very specialized systems in terms of obstacle avoidance and determining whether there’s enough power to move or not, rather than a standard centralized system where you have a rover that can do multiple processes or be reconfigured or changed at any time via software,” Sauder said.
The team has received funding to continue its work. The technology that goes into the machine may be used elsewhere in the solar system, such as on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
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