NASA is planning new types of rover explorers for observing extreme environments, such as the surface of Venus. They plan to build simple yet robust vehicles. AREE is their acronym for Automaton Rovers for Extreme Environments.
NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars has been roving and exploring the planet’s surface for the last five years. Among rovers, Curiosity is at the top position. It uses special systems for rejecting heat, X-band receiver and transmitter for communicating directly with Earth, an Electra-Lite radio (UHF) for communicating with the Mars Orbiters, instruments for mineralogy and chemistry, instruments for simple analysis, and much more.
According to Jason Derleth, NASA prefers to do the absolute maximum when sending a rover into space, such as making sure the rover can contribute as much to science as is possible. Jason is the head of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC).
However, Venus is vastly different from Mars. Although very similar to Earth in its size, mass, and density, Venus has an incredibly thick atmosphere—a mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide. This raises the temperature on the surface of Venus to over 450°C, which is hot enough to melt lead or high enough for paper to spontaneously combust. The atmospheric pressure at the surface is 92 bar or 1,334 psi, with a density enough to crush a submarine.
In the past, some robots have succeeded in reaching Venus. These were the Soviet Union’s Venera and Vega landers, and the Pioneer probe from NASA. Although they were successful in reaching the planet’s surface, they could function only between 23 and 127 minutes before the oppressive environment snuffed out their electronics.
With the AREE rovers, NASA is trying a new concept, inspired by mechanical clockwork computers and tanks used in World War I. A NASA program, NIAC, is funding the AREE rovers. It is offering small grants for developing early stage technology, which allows engineers to work on long-term ideas for properly developing the technology.
For instance, the most recent funding from NASA related to the development of a rough prototype of the rover concept, which will take about three years. Jonathan Sauder was the first to propose the concept. In 2015, Sauder had observed mechanical computers using levers and gears for performing calculations rather than rely on electronics.
The AREE rovers would be using these analog techniques mainly to survive the harsh environments on Venus. They would traverse the planet’s surface moving on tank treads that overcame the rough terrain. As wind gusts on Venus are high, they would turn wind turbines located at the center of the rover to supply it with the necessary power. The robot would capture the power from the turbines inside springs before distributing it to the other subsystems of the robot. Think of a windup watch, the idea is very similar.
Curiosity has several cameras to measure, map, and guide it over the Marian terrain. However, the electronic functionality of the AREE rovers will be purposely kept simple. Although AREE’s design will make it robust enough to withstand unexpected bumps and drops, it will integrate a simple optical reflector to transmit data to the orbiting satellite.