Explore Venus with a Strandbeest Rover

There’s a little problem with sending drones to Venus: it’s too hostile for electronics; the temperature averages 867 °F and the pressure at sea level is 90 atmospheres. The world duration record is 2 hours and 7 minutes, courtesy of Russia’s Venera 13 probe. To tackle the problem, JPL has created a concept for AREE, a mechanical robot designed to survive in that environment.

AREE consists of a Strandbeest configuration of multiple legs with a monster fan propelling it, and one can imagine it creeping over the Venusian landscape. While its propulsion system might be handled by the Strandbeest mechanism, it will still have to navigate and transmit data. We’re not sure how a mechanical radio wave might work–maybe like those propeller arrow-cutters that [Dain of the Iron Hills] busts out in movie version of the Hobbit? Chemical rockets that somehow don’t spontaneously ignite? Or maybe it can just “transfer all energy to life support” and AC the heck out of the radio.

We’re space nerds here at Hackaday–check out our piece about NASA employees’ talks at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference and our extracurricular tour of JPL.

[Image: NASA. Via IEEE Spectrum, thanks, Levi!]

72 thoughts on “Explore Venus with a Strandbeest Rover

  1. If you guys use typical, US values (in this case, Fahrenheit), can you write the value in the metric System next to it?
    So non-American Readers can imagine how hot that could be. Else, a nice and interessting article.

    1. @gfcwfzkm,

      You should NOT take a “Units-Fascism” approach to the way you think! There are multiple systems of metrics/units, not only between countries and/or regions that exist today but between both scientific and engineering disciplines. More importantly, even if you get your ideal of Everything being based in YOUR preferred system, that doesn’t address the ability to easily convert when it comes to historical documentation.

      Why don’t you expand your “World-View” to include understanding and mentally converting between myriad systems of measurement? When I earned my EE degree in the U.S. decades ago, all the example and homework/lab problems included both U.S. and Metric units – mixed to make sure we were adaptable. I guess this “inclusive” education process did not (or does not) exist where you live.

      1. @Drone
        I didn’t want to offend anyone, nor was it a “Unit’s-Fascism” Thing as you say. It’s just the fact that officially only the United States mainly uses Fahrenheit, no other Country on earth. Of Course you can say that here and there other People use/understand it too, but the goverments there mostly use/force Celsius.

        To Reply to your question why I don’t expand my World View. I readed about the idea of Fahrenheit etc., but that doesn’t mean that I understand it. And no, we don’t use other measurements in the lab, School etc. Why, if only three countries use the Imperial System and only one uses Fahrenheit, why should all the other countries adopt to your System? Can you present me the key-features and Advantages of imperial and Fahrenheit? Then I might actually learn it.

      2. How’s about these units, did your education include Keels or Dutch Casks or Rooms or Passerees? No? Then you should expand your World View /s

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_obsolete_units_of_measurement

        Measurements become obsolete all the time especially when they’re not based on anything sensible. At least the whole SI units, everything’s a power of 10 thing makes life easy.

        It’s about 460°C btw, so sayeth Google because I don’t remember how to convert anything but 70 and 32 farenheit to celcius.

      3. Did your class include cubits and furlongs and drams too? Measuring systems adapt and die off, as all ideas do and should. Metric is an objectively superior system at the moment.

        I bet you wouldn’t liken someone asking for metric units to fascism if you’d ever lived under fascism. That’s thoroughly silly.

      4. Here ya go. 867 °F is 1327 R and 737 K. And I prefer deg F for the smaller divisions. Deg C would be OK if it had been defined as absolute zero to some boiling point of water is 1000 deg. Then 1.5 deg C is about 1 deg F and that would be a great scale.

        And there is nothing magic about 10. If you could pick a base and start over, 12 is the way to go, like in inches and feet. 10 is only commensurate with 1, 2, and 5. 12 is commensurate with 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. Much more convenient and lends itself to the perfection (no round-off) of rational arithmetic in numerical processes.

        1. With that criterion we use base 2048. Which has even more divisors: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048 …
          Totally absurd. We used 10 for the ease of counting with the fingers.

    2. Contrary to everyone else, I thought your request made sense. I know I for one would prefer quid pro quo on things I read that were created outside the U. S. since imperial is what I know best. Everyone can relate to their home units best. So if the conversion is so simple (or just use a Google search conversion) it should be no big deal for Hackaday to do what you’ve requested, i.e. make a globally published & respected (well, mostly) website more accessible to everyone that uses one of the two systems mentione for this type of discourse.

    3. “””If you guys use typical, US values (in this case, Fahrenheit), can you write the value in the metric System next to it?”””

      +1¹⁰⁰

      And use a sane date format too… YYYYMMDD would be best… ;-) …but either big endian or little endian would be ok. US’s screwed middle endian (or mixed endian?) just is a bad joke we already have seen far too often…

    4. Celsius is not a very accurate system of measurement. In fact one could question the metric system as the original imperial system was designed to prevent fraud and create a system that could easily be compared to the real world. Once you start altering the values of numbers you get the Wonderland paradox.

    5. 867F (~464C) is about as hot as inside a pizza oven. There is a company that makes silicon carbide chips for sensors inside jet engines with a similarly wicked environment. In fact, if I were to be in charge of the R and D department, I would install a pizza oven to test chips with and have Friday pizza parties. The company in question has succeeded at making these Venus-tolerant chips. Whether they baked them in a pizza oven before baking them in a Venus Simulator chamber is not known. Once you get the chip to tolerate the pizza oven, hand them to JPL to bake them in the Venus chamber.

  2. With 7+ joints and attendant bearings per leg being exposed to a grit-filled, corrosive environment, and reliance on careful timing among multiple legs to achieve minimal foot-lift and very poor steering, what could go wrong?

    1. Agree,
      Cool concept but not sure what is gained by this approach. Many more joints to corrode and fail. Getting a Strandbeest to work seems like a balancing act in the best of times.
      Why not the “hamster in a ball” approach. You’d keep the electronics elevated off the surface and bounce off of obstacles. It may buy you a few more hours of life on that hell planet.

    2. Why bother with bearings? If the machine only has to move around for a year or less you probably wont need them.
      The corosive atmosphere isn’t a huge issue, the parts could be made from or coated with a tempered Borosilicate type glass. That’d survive the acid, heat and pressures

        1. With the density of the lower atmosphere on Venus, there would be very little slamming involved. The early probes found parachutes to actually be too effective, slowing the descent down to impractically low speeds (the probes had only very limited battery and cooling life so several died before reaching anywhere near the surface) while later probes used much smaller parachutes, and ultimately an umbrella-like air brake for final descent and still managed a soft landing. Venera 7 even had a parachute fail partway through descent but still survived impact with the surface.

    3. If this is related to an earlier NIAC proposal, which I think it is, the point is that it can work without any electronics, or at the very least with only a few simple, redundant electronics for communications. That way, the rover becomes a materials and mechanical engineering challenge, and not one where unprecedented electronics advances are needed. However, since then, some electronics have been demonstrated that work for a time, at least, at Venus surface conditions.

    4. Well put. This looks like too many unqualified NASA Engineers out of control (again). Let the free market take a shot at this in a 100% open public view-able bid/evaluation process. I’m pretty sure we’ll see some real innovation as a result.

      1. Well the venerated free market AFAIK isn’t excluded. Anyone & everyone is free to develop just about anything, to market to almost anyone. The reason the free market isn’t doing anything is that the free market is risk adverse. Extreme Earth exploration was risky and was funded by government,stands to reason risk space exploration will be funded by governments. In the US NASA is how our government of merchants meet out public dollars out to the private for profit sector. While I believe true altruism can exist, I suspect those who contribute to various “prizes” to expect to benefit from the any results the prizes produce, or at the very least reduce their tax liabilities if the prize contestant are non-profit.

  3. I don’t think Venus is too hostile for electronics, just the ones that are designed to work on Earth. I mean, you could claim that Earth is too hostile for electronics if you were using superconducting materials. Are there materials that only become conductive at higher temperatures? Have we even tried to make ICs using them? Design for the environment you have, not the environment you want.

    1. I have thought of that myself, but I’m not a chemist.
      Likewise, for deep space, could they use superconducting materials once the spacecraft gets far enough away and acclimates?

      1. They could as long as they radiated heat well enough. One of the frustrating problems with space is that even though it’s so cold, you only get rid of heat through radiation. If there’s any inefficiency in the machine, that waste heat builds up fast and doesn’t go anywhere without a lot of time or an active cooling system.

        But proper superconductors don’t create ohmic heating, do they? Hmm.

    2. Further thought regarding Venus temps…
      What materials (permanent magnets in motors, armature windings) won’t lose their magnetism, at those temperatures through the Maxwell effect?

    3. Why not use vacuum tubes? I bet you could build a decent telemetry link, with analog video and instrumentation values. You could make the tubes out of a more durable material than glass. If you had an orbital relay satellite, you wouldn’t need that much transmit power or receive sensitivity.

      I think anything we can do with semiconductors could be achieved with vacuum electronics and other old-school technologies (variable saturation transformers etc). Obviously it would require more mass and volume so you wouldn’t be able to pack the same amount of functionality into a rover of a given size, but I think it would absolutely be possible to design a machine that could survive, move around, and gather basic information about the surface of Venus.

      1. You may have a point there if they needed a high output radio… but probably they wouldn’t as they would want to minimize computational power on the rover due to the complexity that adds. SiC semiconductors already surpass what you could do with tubes though in other cases and they’ve actually already made microprocessors with them.

        Commercial HtSiC tech is more in the 300-400 degree C range but there is potential for it to go higher.

      2. the super critical CO2 that makes up the atmosphere at ground level has a habit of finding its way through anything even what we see as sold metal and glass.there is no way to make a vacuum tube keep its… vacuum for long and then they will stop working

  4. The circuits are actually a solved problem… its the sensors and power supply etc… probably that are more problemati.

    SiC circuits can run up to 600+ degrees Celsius…. so while you might have limited compute ability you would still have it at least enough to read a few sensors and transmit it back to a relay to earth probe orbiting.

  5. Sending data mechanically can be done with resonant cavities or other “antenna” designs.
    The US embassy was bugged during the cold war by making the microphone diaphragm wiggle a microwave cavity. The data was recorded by sending a microwave beam to the bug and recording the affect on the reflections.

    This type of telemetry could give surface temperature, gravity, pressure. But may do a poor job with images. I suspect a 555 could be constructed mechanically to solve this problem.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing_(listening_device)

  6. I love all the clever engineering solutions people come up with for space exploration. I’m personally a fan of a more brute-force approach: a big pressure vessel and a heat pump with a massive radiator. But that would be a very active design, failing quickly without power. A totally mechanical probe sounds really interesting. I wonder how temperature-hardened electronics could be made for the leftover bits that still need them?

      1. I think they should lose the mechanical transport mechanism altogether. Run the thing on compressed CO2 or N2 jets. When you move you also transfer heat away from the probe. No corrosion, no links to fail, no motors, just a few solenoids to control.

  7. The Venera landers had a bit of ironic comedy. On one of them a protective camera lens cover was ejected and landed precisely where the end of an arm for testing soil compressibility came down. The camera got a photo of that fail. I can just imagine the groans and facepalms in Soviet mission control when they received that image, and the puzzlement of the guys looking at that sensor’s telemetry before they saw the image.

    You can see the fail in the lower half of this image. http://www.donaldedavis.com/BIGPUB/V14.jpg

  8. As for communicating data, well if they put a really balloon in the upper atmosphere with a hardened microphone on a tether they could use sound to communicate data from the ground, I mean hell it has a very dense atmosphere, it virtually silent (I suppose) and whales, before man, could communicate over thousands of miles across the ocean with their songs. Strandbeest sings songs of Venus.

    1. Venus has the loudest thunder at the surface in the Solar system! It would deafen anyone in some kind of pressure suit, it’s in the hundreds of dB.
      There are serious plans for balloon studies and possible habs not unlike cloud city, as the altitude and pressure of one atmosphere is bearable sans oxygen. That level may even contain life!

      1. Oops, I screwed up on that one. :) (But a lighting detector might help.) But I new about the high altitude of Venus being “Habitable”, and at that level oxygen is a lifting gas! Which means if your not to fussy about living in the penthouse you could colonize the high atmosphere of Venus! And as for life in that layer, I say we look, odds are better than on the surface and the exploration vehicles would be much easier to engineer.

  9. Other then that the article requires the assumption that Earth’s atmosphere is the unit being used, I have no problems with the unit’ being used. Because it’s so little extra effort I feel that that HAD should include both Imperial and metric units. Yes I understand those who throw terms like fascism around will bellyache about that; ignore them, their complaints are life’s small crap not worth sweating.

  10. Probably the best way would be to find a place like a deep cave with a pressure/temperature difference to use as a heat dissipation system. Or have the probe land/move deep into the cave and do analysis there. After all, any historic geological records of importance are gonna be found underground. And even if we managed to do all that, taking stuff out of Venus gravity wheel is gonna take the same amount of fuel than on Earth.

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