NASA’s Plan to Explore Venus with a “SteamPunk” Rover

Venus is one hellish place! Aside from surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead – as high as 737 K (462 °C; 864 °F) – there’s also the sulfuric acid droplets and extreme pressure conditions (92 times that of Earth’s) to contend with! Because of these hostile conditions, exploring Venus’ surface and atmosphere has been an ongoing and significant challenge for space agencies.

Hence why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is looking at some truly innovative and unconventional ideas for future missions to Venus. One of them is the second-generation concept known as the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). By relying on clockwork mechanisms instead of electronics, this rover will be able to function on the surface of Venus for longer periods of time.

If deployed, this rover will build upon the accomplishments of the Soviet-era Venera and Vega programs, which were the only missions to ever successfully land on Venus’ hostile surface. Unfortunately, those probes that actually made it to the surface and landed safely only survived for 23 to 127 minutes before their electronics failed and they could no longer send back information.

Artist’s impression of the AREE clockwork rover operating on the surface of Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the reality of operating machines on Venus, where the extreme temperatures will melt outer casings and sulfuric acid will corrode electronics. Hence why Jonathan Sauder, a mechatronics engineer at JPL, began tinkering with the idea of a clockwork rover. In this respect, he was inspired by mechanical computers, a time-honored concept that relies on levers and gears to make calculations rather than electronic components.

The earliest known example is the Antikythera mechanism, a device built by the ancient Greeks to predict astronomical phenomena. In 1642, French mathematician Blaise Pascal created what is considered to be the first mechanical calculator. Alternately known as the “Arithmetic Machine” and “Pascal Calculator“, Pascal is said to have invented this device to help his father reorganize the tax revenues for their province.

In the early 19th century, French weaver and merchant Joseph Marie Jacqaurd created the “Jacquard Loom“, a machine that relied on punch cards to turn out textiles in various patterns. And in 1822, English mathematician Charles Babbage began work on his “Difference Engine“, a machine that would automatically perform calculations and create error-free tables.

From these and other examples, Sauders and his team saw a possible solution to surviving Venus’ atmosphere. In essence, they proposed reverting back to an ancient practice of using analog gears to build a robot that could survive the most extreme environment within the Solar System. By relying on an entirely mechanical design and hardened metal structure, the AREE could theoretically survive for months or longer on Venus.

As Sauder explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover. But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.”

As a result, it would be able to send back far more information about Venus’ surface conditions and geological processes, which have remained something of a mystery for decades. These include (but are not limited to) why Venus has fewer volcanoes than Earth today – despite widespread evidence of volcanic activity early in its history – and the strange absorption patterns that have been seen in its upper atmosphere.

Sauder first proposed the concept back in 2015. In 2016, the concept was assessed as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which opens itself to submissions every year for mission ideas. Along with twelve other proposals, AREE was selected for Phase I development and Sauder and his team were awarded $100,000 for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.

Beyond its processors, AREE would also rely on analog components for power. This would be necessary since solar cells cannot receive sunlight in Venus’ dense atmosphere. And a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), which the Curiosity rover relies on for power, has complex electrical systems that would likely break down in Venus’s atmosphere.

A look inside the AREE rover (next to an astronaut for scale). Wind would be channeled through the rover’s body for primary power. Rotating targets on top could be “pinged” by radar, sending data as Morse code.Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mobility is another challenge, and one which Sauder and his team also looked to an old idea to address. Basically, Venus’ rocky, craters surface is full of unknowns and will likely be very difficult to navigate. Sauder and his team therefore looked to World War I-era tanks treads as a solution. These vehicles were slow and lumbering, but were designed to traverse the difficult terrain of No Man’s Land, which was characterized by trenches and craters.

Originally, Sauder’s was inspired by Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeests“, a series of wood and canvas “robots” that relied on wind-driven gears to power their legs and walk along beaches. In the same vein, Sauder considered building a spider-like robot that used spindly legs to get around. However, this seemed too unstable for Venus’ rocky terrain, and treads were favored instead.

For communications, AREE would rely on another time-honored technology – Morse Code. This would involve an orbiting spacecraft pinging the rover using radar, while the rover would communicate by reflecting radar signals off of properly-shaped targets. Thanks to a rotating shutter, which would be positioned in front of the radar target, the rover would be able to turn the signal on and off to simulate dots and dashes.

If successful, this rover would be the first mission since the Cold War to explore the surface of Venus. As Evan Hilgemann, a JPL engineer working on high temperature designs for AREE, explained:

“When you think of something as extreme as Venus, you want to think really out there. It’s an environment we don’t know much about beyond what we’ve seen in Soviet-era images.”

Artist’s concept for the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). Credit: NASA/JPL

Beyond Venus, such a probe would also be useful for exploring hostile environments on Mercury, within Jupiter’s radiation belt, interiors of gas giants, within volcanoes, and perhaps even the mantle of Earth. The AREE rover is currently in its second phase of NIAC development, and the team is working towards refining and prototyping parts of the concept.

In the future, Sauder and his team hope to expand the rover’s capabilities further and maybe equip it with a drill to collect geological samples. With the ability to function on the planet for up to a year, and the prospect of actual samples being obtained from the surface, scientists will be able to learn a great deal about Earth’s “Sister Planet”. This, in turn, could teach us much about the formation and evolution of rocky planets in our Solar System.

Be sure to check out this video of AREE concept, which features the team’s original spider-leg design:

Further Reading: NASA, NASA AREE

Mysterious Greek Device Found To Be Astronomical Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism may be the world's oldest computer. Image: By Marsyas CC BY 2.5

Thanks to a decade worth of high-tech imaging, the use of the ancient device called the Antikythera Mechanism can now be confirmed. The device, which was discovered over a century ago in an ancient shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera, was used as an astronomical computer.

Archaeologists long suspected that the device was connected to astronomy, but most of the writing on the instrument was indecipherable, which left some question. But a thorough, decade long effort using high-tech scanning methods has revealed much more of the text on the instrument.

The Antikythera Mechanism has about 14,000 characters of text on its mangled, time-weary body. Since its discovery over 100 years ago, very little of that text was readable, only a few hundred characters. It hinted at astronomical use, but detail remained frustratingly out of reach.

Now, the team behind this effort confirms that the mechanism was an astronomical calendar. It showed the position of the planets, the position of the Sun and Moon in the zodiac, the phases of the Moon, and it also predicted eclipses.

According to the team, it was like a teaching tool, or a kind of philosopher’s guide to the galaxy.

A 2007 recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism. Image: I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5
A 2007 recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism. Image: I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5

The characters were engraved on the front and back sections of the device, and on the inside covers. Some of the writing was very small, only about 1.2 mm (1/20th of an inch) tall. The device itself was about the size of an office box file. It was contained in a wooden box, and was operated with a handle crank.

At the time that it was found, the device was largely an afterthought. The real find at the time was luxury glassware and ceramics, and statues made of bronze and marble found at the shipwreck by sponge divers. But the device attracted attention over the years as different scholars hypothesized what the mechanism was for and how the gears worked.

Professor Mike Edmunds, of Cardiff University, is the Chair of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. He said, “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully.”

In fact, a device of this complexity did not appear anywhere for another thousand years.

The device itself is incomplete. The fragments that were found came from a shipwreck discovered in 1901. That ship was a mid-1st century BC ship, a large one for its time at 40 meters (130 ft) long. It’s hoped that additional fragments of the device can be found by architects visiting the original shipwreck. But event though it’s incomplete, most of the inscriptions are there, as are 20 gears that displayed planets.

According to the team responsible for imaging the text on the device, almost all of the text on the device’s 82 fragments has been deciphered. It remains to be seen if any other surviving fragments, if found, will contain more text, and if that text will shed any more light on this remarkable device.

The Antikythera Time Machine

Antikythera by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

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Leonardo da Vinci may have left behind sketches of helicopters, tanks and submarines but it is rare that we find actual artifacts that seem so way ahead of their time. Almost like a science fiction tale of archaeologists finding a wristwatch buried deep in an Egyptian pyramid or motorcar under the foundations of Stonehenge, we do have an example of a scientific computer that was built between 150 and 100 BC. It was so advanced, nothing as complex would be developed again until the 14th century.

The Antikythera mechanism was lost to the world for centuries. The device was salvaged in 1900 from a ship that sank en route to Rome, in the 1st century BC, between Crete and the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean. When one of the fragments was discovered to contain a bronze gear wheel, the idea that this was some kind of astronomical clock was dismissed as too fantastic an anachronism. It was not until 1951 that the investigation was picked up by a British science historian Derek J. de Solla Price. So far 82 fragments have been recovered of what is now considered the oldest known astronomical computer.

The device is made of bronze and contains 30 gears though it may have had as many as 72 originally. Each gear was meticulously hand cut with between 15 and 223 triangular teeth, which were the key to discovering the mechanism’s various functions. It was based on theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers who may have drawn from earlier Babylonian astronomical theories and its construction could be attributed to the astronomer Hipparchus or, more likely, Archimedes the famous Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer. Why it was built, or for whom is unknown.

Replica Antikythera Based on the research of Professor Derek de Solla Price, in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center Demokritos and physicist CH Karakalos. image by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons
Replica Antikythera Based on the research of Professor Derek de Solla Price, in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center Demokritos and physicist CH Karakalos. image by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

The main front dial showed the 365 day Egyptian year and the Greek signs of the Zodiac and could be adjusted to compensate for the extra quarter day in the solar year. The dial probably bore three hands that marked the date and positions of the Sun and Moon, while a separate mechanism showed the Moon’s phases and it likely also displayed the 5 classically known planets, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

On the back an upper dial showed 19 year Metonic cycle of Moon phases, the 76 year Callippic cycle (four Metonic cycles) and calculated the 4 year Olympic cycle (four games took place in two and four year cycles) The lower dial showed the 18 year 11 days Saros eclipse cycle and the 54 year 33 day Exeligmos or triple saros cycle. It was driven by a hand crank now sadly lost. It is small, compact and portable with full instructions engraved upon it in Greek, about 95% of which have now been deciphered.

The fragile pieces that remain have been examined and modeled using high-resolution X-ray tomography and gamma rays and various reconstructions and replicas have been built. It has even had a working model constructed out of Lego. I can’t helping thinking that Archimedes would have rather liked Lego, if only we could go back in time and give him a set…

Find out more at the  Antikythera Mechanism Research Project