NASA launches $30,000 competition to develop parts for new Venus rover

The search is on to find an innovative obstacle avoidance sensor which could be included in a mechanical clockwork rover concept design, which NASA hopes will explore the planet’s surface in depth for the first time.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has launched a competition which is asking the “global community of innovators” to develop parts for a concept rover that could explore the surface of Venus.

Worth $30,000 in total, the global call for designs is in search of an obstacle avoidance sensor that will help the rover navigate the planet’s terrain.

A concept for the AREE rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Turning to the global community”

The competition is part of a wider JPL project being funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Currently still in early stages of development, it centres on the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE).

Powered by wind and relying on clockwork mechanics, rather than an electronic system, the AREE is new ground for NASA. The reason for this new concept is the extreme inhospitable weather found on Venus.

“Current state-of-the-art electronics fail at just over 250°F (125°C) and would easily succumb to the extreme Venus environment,” says NASA in statement. “That is why [we are] turning to the global community of innovators and inventors for a solution.”

The designers of the winning sensor, along with earning $15,000, will be given the opportunity to collaborate with the JPL to develop the mechanical sensor within the project. The remaining prize money will be shared between second and third runners up, earning them $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Requirements for the sensor

Requirements for the sensor can be found on NASA’s crowdsourcing innovation platform heroX. They state that the sensor “must reliably respond” when encountering the following: slopes greater than 30 degrees, either up or downhill; rocks greater than 0.35 metres in height (it should not trigger for rocks smaller than 0.3 meters); and holes and valleys greater than 0.35 metres deep.

But as per the AREE’s clockwork mechanics, entrants for the competition are warned that electronic components should be kept “basic”. Wires, resistors and inductors are permitted, but “capacitors, microchips or diodes are not acceptable without strong and compelling evidence for their inclusion.”

Additionally, entrants to the competition do not need to demonstrate how the sensor would fit onto the existing AREE model. Rather, they need only show that the design could provide the desired functionality while being powered by an average of just 1W and coming in at below 25 kilograms.

The Vega Solar System Probe Bus and Landing Apparatus. Image courtesy of Ryan Somma, Flickr

A “hellish landscape”

The picture NASA paints of the planet is a fiery one; Venus has a surface temperature in excess of 450°C and a surface pressure 92 times that of Earth. This climate, the challenge overview states, is hot enough to melt lead, while the atmospheric pressure is enough to crush a nuclear submarine.

Many missions have visited the planet, which is one of our closest celestial neighbours. But only around a dozen have actually made contact with Venus’ surface, and because of its “hellish landscape” all of these have been quickly destroyed by extreme heat and pressure.

The last mission that made it to the surface was the Soviet Vega 2, which landed in 1985.

“Exploring a foreign world right in our own backyard”

Despite the extreme nature of the planet, NASA believes exploration of Venus’ surface could provide crucial answers to the history and future of our own world.

“Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets, but Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life as we know it,” says senior mechatronics engineer at JPL Jonathan Sauder, who is also serving as principle investigator for the AREE concept.

“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.”

Entries for the Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover competition close on 29 May 2020. Submissions should be made via the heroX website.

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