NASA has launched a public competition to design a sensor that will guide a future rover across rough terrain and inhospitable environment on Venus.
The sensor will need to be able to withstand heat capable of ‘turning lead into a puddle’ and pressure high enough to ‘crush a submarine’, the space agency said.
It will sit on the proposed mechanical clockwork rover and help it avoid obstacles as it traverses the surface of Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour.
Any sensor design will also need to operate without electrical power, the same as the rover, as electrical systems fail at the high temperatures found on Venus.
Anyone hoping to enter the competition has until March 29 to get their designs off to NASA with judging happening in June and winners announced on July 6.
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The extreme environment rover concept is being designed by NASA JPL and will be powered by a wind turbine on its top – that turbine will also power the sensor being designed by the competition winner
The space agency says exploring different geological areas on the surface of Venus will provide insights into the planet’s evolution and even our own climate.
The last spacecraft to touch the surface of Venus was the Soviet Vega 2 which touched down in 1985 and lasted just under an hour before it stopped working.
WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR THE SENSOR?
The sensor can’t be higher than 34 inches and no more than 40 inches from the front of the rover
The surface of Venus is inhospitable
Must be designed to operate for at least six months on Venus
Can’t access more than an average of 1 Watt of power from the turbine
It can’t weigh more than 55lbs
The sensor must reliably respond when encountering:
- Slopes greater than 30 degrees going up and down hill
- Rocks greater than 13 inches but not smaller than 11 inches high
- Holes greater than 13 inches deep but not shallower than 11 inches
Now, engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are studying mission designs that can survive the hellish landscape for months not minutes.
They have the work on designing the mechanical rover in hand – but want an individual or team to come up with an obstacle sensor to run on the rover.
The winning design will get $15,000 (£11,000) and a chance to work with the team at JPL on a final device that could end up on the surface of Venus.
There is no specific mission for the rover yet, but NASA has a number of possible ideas it is considering for the Earth’s ‘sister planet’ in future.
‘Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets, but Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life as we know it,’ said Jonathan Sauder, a senior mechatronics engineer at JPL.
‘By getting on the ground and exploring Venus, we can understand what caused Earth and Venus to diverge on wildly different paths and can explore a foreign world right in our own backyard.’
It’s not going to be easy creating a sensor that can withstand the environment on Venus.
It will have to cope with 840 degree Fahrenheit temperatures and a surface pressure that is 90 times greater than on Earth.
Things taken for granted on Earth such as electrical power won’t work at the temperatures and pressures found on Venus.
The proposed rover will be powered through a wind turbine mounted on its back and won’t make use of electrical systems – instead drawing energy from the wind turbine.
While wind speeds on Venus are relatively slow – about 2mph – the intense pressure means they actually move much faster and act more like gale force wind on Earth.
NASA hopes its rover will be used to could collect valuable, long-term longitudinal scientific data about the planet.
‘As the rover explores the planet, it must also detect obstacles in its path, such as rocks, crevices and steep terrain,’ a JPL spokesperson said.
This is where the sensor competition comes in and the challenge’s winning sensor will be incorporated into the rover concept being built by JPL.
‘This is an exciting opportunity for the public to design a component that could one day end up on another celestial body,’ said Ryon Stewart, challenge coordinator for the NASA Tournament Lab at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
‘NASA recognises that good ideas can come from anywhere and that prize competitions are a great way to engage the public’s interest and ingenuity and make space exploration possible for everyone.’
Of the many missions to our celestial neighbour, only about a dozen have made contact with the surface of the planet.
The longest-lived landers only managed to function for a couple of hours before succumbing to the relentlessly oppressive heat and pressure.
The Challenge offers up to $30,000 (£23,000) in prize money as well as other rewards and recognition with half the money going to the first place winner.
The sensor will have to be able to detect a range of obstacles on Venus as well as the high temperatures – including slopes and valleys
Venus has been explored by a number of orbiter space craft but only a dozen landers have touched down on the surface – none lasting longer than two hours
As the rover explores the surface, collecting and relaying data to an orbiter, it must also detect obstacles in its path like rocks, crevices, and steep terrain.
The challenge to create a sensor is opening to people of all experience and ability – they just have to submit a design that could work on the surface.
The winning idea will be developed by the JPL team for use in their final concept.
Due to the complexity in creating something that will work in such inhospitable conditions and with limitations such as no electrical power supply, NASA opened the design to the wider public in the hope someone may have a spark of inspiration.
‘This sensor will be the primary mechanism by which the potential rover would detect and navigates through dangerous situations during its operational life.
‘By sensing obstacles such as rocks, crevices, and inclines, the rover would then navigate around the obstruction, enabling the rover to continue to explore the surface of Venus and collect more observational data,’ a spokesperson said.
The details of the competition are available from the NASA Tournament Lab.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT VENUS’ ATMOSPHERE?
Venus’ atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulphuric acid droplets.
The thick atmosphere traps the sun’s heat, resulting in surface temperatures higher than 470°C (880°F).
The atmosphere has many layers with different temperatures.
At the level where the clouds are, about 30 miles (50 km) up from the surface, it’s about the same temperature as on the surface of the Earth.
As Venus moves forward in its solar orbit while slowly rotating backwards on its axis, the top level of clouds zips around the planet every four Earth days.
They are driven by hurricane-force winds travelling at about 224 miles (360 km) per hour.
Atmospheric lightning bursts light up these quick-moving clouds.
Speeds within the clouds decrease with cloud height, and at the surface are estimated to be just a few miles (km) per hour.
On the ground, it would look like a very hazy, overcast day on Earth and the atmosphere is so heavy it would feel like you were one mile (1.6km) deep underwater.