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  • This is a Strandbeest

  • These wind-powered mechanical creations can walk, store energy, and even react to their

  • environment.

  • These creatures are awesome and amazing in the way they operate, and that it's all through

  • a mechanical system that you can see and observe.

  • And understand how it works

  • If it was up to this NASA JPL engineer, these self-propelled creatures would be exploring

  • one of the most mysterious planets in our solar system.

  • Venus is the exoplanet in our own backyard

  • The really important reason for going to Venus is to complete our picture of terrestrial

  • planets with atmospheres in our own solar system

  • so that we know which planets in other star systems could potentially harbor life.

  • We just need to find a way to survive Venus' unforgiving environment, where lead melts

  • and most electronics are destroyed before even touching the ground.

  • What that means is we have to completely rethink how a rover would operate and be designed

  • to work.

  • What I want is a Strandbeest on another planet.

  • Venusoften called Earth's evil twinis a total mystery to us, despite having a similar

  • size and composition to our planet.

  • It was actually the first planet to be explored by a spacecraft

  • But after more than 50 years of studying Venus with probes and landers, it seems we've

  • only barely scratched the surface.

  • I mean we know basic information about the atmosphere, what's the makeup of it.

  • We have very limited information.

  • Part of that is because it's shrouded in clouds,

  • which makes it very hard to observe the planetary surface

  • The other challenge is that there's just been a handful of spacecraft that have traveled

  • to Venus

  • After several attempts, the Soviet Union's Venera space program safely landed its first

  • spacecraft on the planet in 1970.

  • They sent more spacecraft over the next decade,

  • with the longest surviving mission operating on the surface for just 127 minutes.

  • As you descend, both the pressure and the temperature builds until you get to nearly

  • 100 times that of Earth's pressure and 465 degrees Celsius.  

  • That's hot enough where lead and solder would melt, and paper would spontaneously combust.

  • These inhospitable conditions have made it easier to study planets much farther away

  • rather than the one right in our backyard

  • We know quite a bit about Earth, and we're constantly learning more and more about Mars,

  • Venus is extremely under-explored

  • By understanding these three sets of planets, we can do what's known as comparative planetology

  • to be able to help extrapolate what makes the conditions for life or against life

  • to help answer one of those fundamental questions.

  • Are we alone?

  • While the jury is still out on that one, both public and scientific interest are at a turning

  • point for Venus.

  • NASA recently approved two missions to study the planet's atmosphere and map its surface

  • after not sending a dedicated spacecraft there in more than 30 years.

  • But those missions aren't meant to survive on the surface

  • Jonathan believes that what we need is a presence on the ground.

  • We absolutely have to do surface investigations on Venus and that's because there's

  • some questions that you just can't answer when you're farther away

  • Eventually, you need to get down to the surface and really look at

  • things that you're not going to be able to see from a distance.

  • Remember, we're talking about hellish conditions here

  • NASA can't just send one of their Mars rovers to Venus

  • For each planetary condition, you need to design a unique application for how you explore

  • That's where this radically new rover comes in

  • The Hybrid Automaton Rover-Venus combines a little bit of steampunk with spacecraft

  • to create a clockwork rover.

  • Jonathan's concept for HAR-V went through NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program,

  • which incubates ideas that have the potential to shake up space exploration

  • We originally started off with a walking rover that looked a lot like Theo Jansen Strandbeest,

  • but after we talked with Theo, he advised us against the legs.

  • That eventually moved us to a four-wheeled rover concept, using compliant wheels and that

  • would allow us to drive on the surface of Venus

  • The original idea was an entirely mechanical creation

  • But after trial and error, the team found that tackling the most basic challenges like

  • power, navigation, and data collection required a slightly different approach

  • The answer?

  • A stripped down hybrid system

  • So, the HAR-V rover takes a very simplified approach to your standard Mars rover

  • Basically, we have the mechanical system, which does a lot of the driving, the operations,

  • and the exploration of Venus

  • And then there are a subset of electronics that are designed for high temperature, made

  • out of things like silicon carbide and gallium nitride

  • And these can actually operate at extremely high temperatures, above that of the surface

  • of Venus

  • Which will help this rover collect data like its Mars cousins do, but HAR-V's hardware

  • will be pared down in comparison

  • This means the rover will have to do much of the operations on its own

  • no humans at the wheel.

  • So the idea is an observe-and-report rover

  • It's likely that it would just be a continuous transmission, where you're just constantly

  • saying, "This is what I'm seeing," and cycling through different instruments

  • But Jonathan and his team still have to solve a major problem

  • The high-temperature electronics have the computational ability of a solar powered calculator,

  • so they can only tackle basic processes.

  • To traverse the Venus landscape, the team is looking to one of the planet's most abundant

  • resources for a boost...

  • wind.

  • So the wind seems to be the best approach for navigating the surface of Venus with then

  • a mechanical obstacle-avoidance detection system that would sense obstacles in the near

  • term, including holes, rocks, and cliffs that the rover couldn't drive over and overcome.

  • If conditions are right, HAR-V could even withstand the harsh elements on Venus for

  • up to 120 days, far surpassing the Soviet record of just over two hours.

  •   HAR-V handles the temperature by being built

  • out of stainless steel and titanium alloys, which can operate at these extremely high

  • temperatures and are impervious to the sulfuric acid content in the atmosphere

  • Now, HAR-V doesn't simply exist on the computer.

  • Jonathan and his team have actually started putting the design to the test.  

  • So what we have here is what we call a Representative Rover Prototype.

  • Now you'll notice it looks pretty different then the images of the CAD model or what anything

  • you'd expect to see driving on Venus

  • What we're primarily demonstrating here is our mechanical drive system; the ability to

  • detect an obstacle with our simple bumper here out the front, and the ability to reverse,

  • back up, and continue to drive forward after we've detected that obstacle.

  • The prototype does a fine job with rocks, but Jonathan's got a lean team to work with,

  • so they crowdsourced ideas for a sensor to detect hills and holes.

  • Then they waited

  • We were completely blown away by the response  

  • We had architects.

  • We had artists, as well as engineering students and tinkerers.

  • I would've been thrilled with 50 concepts even, but instead we got over 500 concepts

  • submitted.

  • One of the incredible things about HAR-V is that, because it is mechanical

  • And we're trying to look at how to do things in a simpler way

  • whenever I'd talk to people about it, they connect with it in a different way and understand it and

  • start even giving ideas of how to do different operations 

  • At the moment, the conceptual design for HAR-V is about 95% complete

  • While Jonathan and his team are still working out the final details, he's already imagining

  • what HAR-V might uncover.

  • One is helping us understand the geologic variations across Venus and that can help

  • give you a lot of information for why the planet is the way it is.

  • Why is there a planet that's so similar to Earth in size, in location in the solar system,

  • but so extremely different from Earth?

  • How did Venus take this other backstory or change into this really hostile environment?

  • Of course, there's also the search for life beyond Earth

  • We often hear the term life as we know it but what about life as we don't know it?

  • How could that exist, and what would it look like?

  • Venus has been our underexplored sibling for so long, but that's all about to change.

  • I should clarify that, scientifically, Venus is not an exoplanet, right?

  • An exoplanet is around another star.

  • Basically, it's a planet that's very different from Earth but similar enough that we might

  • expect it to harbor life, if we saw it around another star

This is a Strandbeest

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NASA Engineers Want This Steampunk Rover to Uncover Venus’ Secrets

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    Summer posted on 2021/07/25
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