Illustration for article titled What To Do While Hiding From Coronavirus: Design NASAs Venus Rover Using No Electronics

I know for many of you being trapped in your home until the virus invaders from the planet Corona decide to leave is a miserable proposition. While many of us can work from home, there’s many who can’t and that means many powerful minds going to waste, absorbing Netflix and pornography and video games at alarming rates. But there are productive things you could be doing! NASA, for example, could use your help designing a Venus rover!

When most of us think of rovers, we tend to think of Mars, which makes sense, as most of the rovers built by JPL and NASA have ended up there. That’s partially because Mars is interesting, but also because Mars is a far easier planet for a rover to operate on than Venus is.

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Venus is also very interesting—it’s about the same size as earth, it rotates in the opposite direction, so sunsets are in the East and sunrises in the West, and it rotates so slowly its day is longer than its year.

Venus also has a very dense atmosphere of around 96 percent carbon dioxide, an atmosphere that traps heat so effectively (the “greenhouse effect” you may have heard of, as it’s a factor in climate change) that temperatures on the surface can get up to an insane 864 degrees Fahrenheit.

The clouds are made of sulfuric acid droplets. The density at the surface is so high it’d be the equivalent of being 1.6 miles underwater on Earth. It’s about as close to a literal Hell as you can get, and, as you may guess, it is not easy on machinery.

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The Soviet Union managed to land 14 functioning probes on Venus—the U.S. just managed one—but none of those managed to survive longer than just under two hours, compared to Mars probes that keep working for years and years.

So, a rover for Venus is a very big engineering problem. If anyone can figure it out, our pals at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) can, but they’d like your help.

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The planned rover for Venus is called AREE (Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments) and it may be the most fascinating rover design I’ve ever heard of.

The incredibly high temperatures means that electronics as we know them are out if this rover is to operate for weeks or months, as planned, instead of a couple of hours at most like previous rovers. As a result, the rover will not use electronics, instead relying on steampunk-style mechanical computers and all sorts of wildly innovative ideas. Here’s how NASA describes it:

Automata are purely mechanical, self-operating machines capable of performing sequences of operations and instructions. Almost 2,300 years ago the ancient Greeks built the Antikythera automaton. This mechanical computer accurately predicted past and future astronomical events long before electronics existed. Automata have been credibly used for hundreds of years as computers, art pieces, and clocks. While the construction of semi-autonomous automata declined in the 1900’s, the Dutch artist Theo Jansen recently revived the idea with massive canvas and wooden “Strandbeest” creatures which have the ability to respond to the environment.

Automata could be the key for unlocking the secrets for some of the most extreme environments in the solar system such as the surface of Venus. AREE, the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments replaces vulnerable electronics with an entirely mechanical design. By utilizing high temperature alloys, the rover would survive for weeks if not months, allowing it to collect and return valuable long term longitudinal science data from the surface of Venus. This science data is critical for informing models of dynamic planetary systems. To implement AREE, steampunk science fiction meets spacecraft technology. The rover harvests wind energy using a turbine and stores it in a constant force spring. The Jansen mechanisms legs are guided by a mechanical computer and logic system, programed to carry out the mission. It is able to collect basic science data such as wind speed, temperature, and seismic events. Communicating the data back to earth is the most challenging aspect of the system design but multiple options are open for study including a retroreflector, a simple electronic high temperature transponder, or inscribing phonograph style records to be launched via a balloon to a high altitude drone capable of transmitting the data back to Earth.

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The inspiration from Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests is just a wonderful idea; if you haven’t seen these wind-powered machines before, step onto a dropcloth for the inevitable mind-blowing:

Amazing, yeah? The idea of this kind of a machine, storing wind energy from a turbine in a spring and using mechanical-logic computers and storing data on a phonograph-type setup is like a DaVinci wet dream.

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What NASA and JPL need help with is a design for a mechanical obstacle-detection sensor system:

“As the rover explores the planet, it must also detect obstacles in its path, such as rocks, crevices and steep terrain. And NASA is crowdsourcing help for that sensor design. The challenge’s winning sensor will be incorporated into the rover concept and could potentially one day be the mechanism by which a rover detects and navigates around obstructions.”

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I’m thinking something perhaps analogous to whiskers on a cat may work? An array of little feelers out front that can detect contact with objects, but not get caught on them, and send information to the Difference Engine or whatever’s doing the clackity thinking in there.

If it was a grid across the front, the whisker at a given point could help give direction info, and could possibly turn the rover away from the obstruction?

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This seems like a really fascinating challenge, and I’m sure enough of you have rebuilt analog/mechanical-computing carburetors to have an idea of how this may work, so why not try for that $15,000 first prize (second is $10,000, third, $5,000) and design something that will go into space?

Plus, I bet you can prototype this with Legos.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)

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