Venus is too hot for electronics, so engineers at NASA are looking back in time for inspiration, when the world was far less plugged-in.
To get around the planet, which has a surface temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit, a rover will need to instead use a mechanical computer, with gears you might associate with a grandfather clock, and treads you’d find on a British Mark V tank, to get around its rocky terrain. To communicate, it’ll have to use the same tech that sailors did as the RMS Titanic sank.
The rover is called the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE for short), and on Friday, NASA announced it had received funding for a study from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which issues small grants to develop early stage space tech. The work on this rover will be done at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
For the project, scientists would look to another bygone technology to communicate with the rover. Morse code served as the inspiration for how to send information about Venus from the rover to an orbiter above the planet, which would relay that data back to Earth.
Here’s how the Morse code-styled communication would work, according to a NASA statement: An orbiting spacecraft could ping the rover using radar and the rover would have a radar target on its roof, which if shaped correctly, would act like stealth technology in reverse. Stealth planes have special shapes that disperse radar signals and NASA is exploring how to shape these targets to brightly reflect signals. Adding a rotating shutter in front of the radar target on the rover would allow it to turn the bright, reflected spot on and off, communicating much like signal lamps on Navy ships.
The rover was proposed in 2015 by Jonathan Sauder a mechatronics engineer at NASA, who was inspired by mechanical computers, which use levers and gears to make calculations rather than electronics. To get a sense of the person behind this old-school space concept, here’s a sample line from Sauder’s bio: “Many of my past career experiences could be best described by the ‘80s TV show, MacGyver.”
Even though this sturdy little rover looks like a tank and works like a clock, it won’t have a long life in the hell that is Venus.
This would be lucky to survive a year, Sauder says:
“Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover,” Sauder said in a statement on Friday. “But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.”
Learn more about Venus, the second planet from the sun and Earth’s closest neighbor, in this soothing video: