From squid-like submarines to bouncing rovers, NASA is never short of a crazy idea or two, and now the agency is looking to explore the potential of using "windbots" to investigate the skies above Jupiter. The agency has invested US$100,000 of NIAC funds in the project, which could potentially revolutionize how we gain data on some of the most inhospitable planets in our solar system.
Its a simple fact of deep space exploration that some planets are more suited to being explored than others. For example, NASA has been able to explore planets such as Mars by dropping a couple of rovers on the surface, and letting them trundle along for over a decade in some cases as they make groundbreaking discoveries.
Other planets are less accommodating. In 2003, NASA's Galileo mission dropped an atmospheric probe into Jupiter like a pebble in a lake to see what information it could mine. The probe lasted just over an hour before being overwhelmed by the heat and pressure of the gas giant's atmosphere. For a sustainable approach to gas giant exploration, a different tack would have to be taken.
NASA's newest concept represents a potential solution to many of the challenges faced when exploring these inhospitable planets. The project is due to last for one year, and would see a NASA team evaluate the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of using such a floating probe to explore the alien skies of Jupiter. It is possible that a windbot may even be of use in a more terrestrial setting, being used to ride the winds of a hurricane and transmit valuable scientific data.
One vision regarding the design of the probe would see it fitted with rotors on several sides to aid with stability and mobility, however at this point there is little solid information on just what form the bot might take. "There are lots of things we don't know," states Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at JPL. "Does a windbot need to be 10 meters in diameter or 100? How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep a windbot aloft?".
What the NASA team does know is that in order for such a probe to remain airborne for prolonged periods, it must be capable of in-situ harvesting of energy. Many NASA missions achieve this by deploying panels which collect and convert solar energy, however this would not be an attractive option for the windbot, as it would spent large amounts of time on a planet's dark side. A more appealing possibility is that the probe could attempt to harvest Jupiter's natural turbulence as an energy source.
The team currently plans to build a small windbot model to determine the best way to tap into this limitless source of energy. The model will inform project members at JPL how best to design a future probe to deal with turbulent airflows while remaining aloft and orientated. Once these challenges are met, the team will move on to discerning what sensors could be used to allow the probe to detect and understand its atmospheric environment.
Other aspects of the study will involve characterizing Jupiter's atmosphere in order to determine what location would grant the highest probability of extreme turbulence. Should the project ever come to fruition, it is likely that the agency would deploy numerous windbots onto a planet's surface in order to create a global context for the data harvested by the probes.
"One could imagine a network of windbots existing for quite a long time on Jupiter or Saturn, sending information about ever-changing weather patterns," states Stoica. "And, of course, what we learn about the atmospheres of other planets enriches our understanding of Earth's own weather and climate."