NASA looking into the use of windbots to explore the skies of Jupiter
From squid-likesubmarines to bouncing rovers, NASA is never short of a crazy idea ortwo, and now the agency is looking to explore the potential of using"windbots" to investigate the skies above Jupiter. Theagency has invested US$100,000 of NIAC funds in the project, whichcould potentially revolutionize how we gain data on some of the mostinhospitable planets in our solar system.
Its a simple fact ofdeep space exploration that some planets are more suited to beingexplored than others. For example, NASA has been able to exploreplanets 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 lessaccommodating. In 2003, NASA's Galileo mission dropped anatmospheric probe into Jupiter like a pebble in a lake to see whatinformation it could mine. The probe lasted just over an hourbefore being overwhelmed by the heat and pressure of the gas giant'satmosphere. For a sustainable approach to gas giant exploration, adifferent tack would have to be taken.
NASA's newest conceptrepresents a potential solution to many of the challenges faced whenexploring these inhospitable planets. The project is due to last forone year, and would see a NASA team evaluate the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of using such a floating probe to explore the alienskies of Jupiter. It is possible that a windbot may even be of use ina more terrestrial setting, being used to ride the winds of ahurricane and transmit valuable scientific data.
One vision regardingthe design of the probe would see it fitted with rotors on severalsides to aid with stability and mobility, however at this point thereis little solid information on just what form the bot might take."There are lots of things we don't know," states AdrianStoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at JPL. "Does a windbot need to be 10 meters in diameter or100? How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep awindbot aloft?".
What the NASA team doesknow is that in order for such a probe to remain airborne forprolonged periods, it must be capable of in-situ harvesting ofenergy. Many NASA missions achieve this by deploying panels whichcollect and convert solar energy, however this would not be anattractive option for the windbot, as it would spent large amounts oftime on a planet's dark side. A more appealing possibility is that theprobe could attempt to harvest Jupiter's natural turbulence as anenergy source.
The team currently plansto build a small windbot model to determine the best way to tap intothis limitless source of energy. The model will inform projectmembers at JPL how best to design a future probe to deal withturbulent airflows while remaining aloft and orientated. Once thesechallenges are met, the team will move on to discerning what sensorscould be used to allow the probe to detect and understand itsatmospheric environment.
Other aspects of thestudy will involve characterizing Jupiter's atmosphere in order todetermine what location would grant the highest probability ofextreme turbulence. Should the project ever come to fruition, it islikely that the agency would deploy numerous windbots onto a planet'ssurface in order to create a global context for the data harvested bythe probes.
"One could imaginea network of windbots existing for quite a long time on Jupiter orSaturn, sending information about ever-changing weather patterns," states Stoica. "And, of course, what we learn aboutthe atmospheres of other planets enriches our understanding ofEarth's own weather and climate."