NASA wants you to design part of its future Venus rover

NASA wants you to design part of its future Venus rover
An artist's impression of the AREE rover
An artist's impression of the AREE rover
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An artist's impression of the AREE rover
An artist's impression of the AREE rover

NASA is looking for help in designing a vital element of a rover that could one day explore Earth’s hellish twin, Venus. The component would allow the rover to safely explore the surface, and would have to be capable of enduring an incredibly hostile environment that Soviet-era landers could only survive for a little over two hours before being destroyed.

Venus is often described as Earth’s twin, mostly due to its similar size, composition and mass relative to our Blue Marble. However, if you were somehow instantaneously transported to its surface, you would die very quickly, and even more horribly.

Our neighboring planet has an average surface temperature of 462 °C (864 °F) and, thanks to its super dense atmosphere, a surface pressure 90 times that of Earth. With this in mind, it isn’t surprising that scientists know relatively little about Venus. Even the toughest of robotic explorers couldn’t withstand that kind of punishment for long.

Not that they haven’t tried. Most recently the Russian space agency sent the Vega 2 lander To Venus, which touched down in 1985. Nine soviet-era probes made it to the surface of our hellish cousin, and even the hardiest of these explorers only survived 127 minutes of the Venusian atmosphere before succumbing.

A longer-duration, mobile rover will be needed to truly explore this hostile world. This could be the remit of NASA’S Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). In order to be a success, AREE must be able to traverse Venus’ surface while making scientific observations, and be able to, well, survive for longer than a couple of hours.

"Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets, but Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life as we know it," says Jonathan Sauder, a senior mechatronics engineer at JPL and principal investigator for the AREE concept. "By getting on the ground and exploring Venus, we can understand what caused Earth and Venus to diverge on wildly different paths and can explore a foreign world right in our own backyard."

In the hopes of extending a potential rover's lifespan to months rather than hours, the agency has proposed a move away from electronic systems, which quickly fail in extreme temperatures of around 120 °C (250 °F), and towards an arguably more primitive automaton-based approach.

The public is being asked to design one specific part of this challenging puzzle – a novel avoidance sensor capable of detecting obstacles such as rocks, crevasses, uneven terrain, and myriad other hazards.

This kind of system is standard fare for rovers trundling across the relatively idyllic terrain of Mars. Of course, the engineers that designed those systems were allowed to rely on lovely, conventional electronics.

You. May. Not.

NASA is offering a US$15,000 prize for the sensor that places first in the challenge, $10,000 for the second, and $5,000 for third.

"This is an exciting opportunity for the public to design a component that could one day end up on another celestial body," comments Ryon Stewart, challenge coordinator for the NASA Tournament Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "NASA recognizes that good ideas can come from anywhere and that prize competitions are a great way to engage the public's interest and ingenuity and make space exploration possible for everyone."

The competition is being hosted on the heroX crowdsourcing platform, and submissions are open until May 29.

Source: NASA JPL

I'll help out for free. A rover that looks anything like the artist's depiction is doomed to get literally blown away. The atmosphere is incredibly dense. So for wind-derived power, a tiny, vaned, ducted fan with very slender blades is called for, nothing like the propellers shown. The rover should probably be oval to circular in shape, have a low center of gravity and be sleek as a Daytona race car, shaped such that any atmospheric flow over the rover, regardless of direction, will generate a strong low pressure gradient beneath the rover to hold it in place. A mere 5 MPH "breeze" will sweep anything else away.
"Around Anthony's high-set negative lift crawling saucer are 6 to 8 S/S spring-wire protruding whiskers, probably best supporting a similar spring-wire full-circle bumper, the lot fold-over-coiled for the journey similar to the way car-window sun-blockers do.
Each whisker has microswitches at the base to trigger at certain displacement vectors. Mechanical logic devices control the drive train, just as we did in my youth, sometime in the last millennium. <grin> Mechanical brake linkages, anyone?
Any other problems they want solved? <sweet smile>
p.s. never forgetting mid-30’s aeronautical engineer Harry Hawker’s motto, over the door into his designer’s room:
“Simplify, and add lightness”.
p.p.s. But if ‘they’ can’t build electronics for that temp, how to get the data back?
I know! Russian valve radios! They have to be hot to work in the first place. Plus RU are the Venus experts to date. A team effort beckons.