Probes do not fare well on Venus. Our neighbor is a volcanic hellscape that slaughters scientific equipment, with 90 times the Earth’s atmospheric pressure and surface temperatures reaching 462 °C. The Soviets, for example, sent a couple of balloons as part of the Vega mission, but these only lasted a few hours before being devoured by Venus’ world of sulphuric-acid hurricanes.
In an effort to overcome the challenges posed by Venus’ hostile environment, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is employing Morse code, clockwork computers, and World War I-era tanks.
One of the major challenges for probes to the surface of Venus is that electronic circuitry quickly becomes a bubbling mess. A new NASA-designed computer chip that can withstand Venus-level extremes is being developed, but it is still in the proof-of-concept stage. The Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), a design funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, solves the problem of high temperatures by avoiding electronic equipment entirely, opting instead for a “steampunk computing” approach.
“Venus is too hostile for the kind of complex control systems you’d find on a Mars rover,” said Jonathan Sauder, a JPL mechatronics engineer. “However, with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive for a year.”
Wind turbines in the machine’s center power the rover’s study clockwork mechanisms, regardless of whether it is flipped upside down. At first, the plan was to make something like Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s wind-powered “Strandbeests,” but this was thought to be too fragile for the surface of Venus. Instead, the team used World War I tank treads, which can handle craters and rocky planes.
Communication is impossible without the use of electronic equipment. It’s one thing to keep a rover running for a year, but how do you get that data back to Earth? The current plan is for an orbiting spacecraft to send radar to a specific target on the rover, which Saunder describes as “stealth technology in reverse.” The target for the rover would be made to brightly reflect the signal instead of scattering it.
With a rotating shutter added to the target, the rover will be able to talk in Morse code by turning on and off the radar spot that reflects light.
The AREE team is still in the early stages of the project, so the steampunk rover may never see the light of day. The researchers will then choose parts of the concept to refine and develop, so let’s hope they can perfect their mechanical Morse-code explorer.