NASA scientists, desperate to explore Jupiter and other planets with no solid surface to speak of, have figured out a way to overcome the challenges of those gas giants. Wind-powered robots, called ‘windbots’, are the way to go, according to a team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Unlike solar-powered and nuclear-powered vessels, which simply wouldn’t work in the atmosphere of far-flung planets like Jupiter, a semi-autonomous craft that could derive its energy from the native turbulence would be perfect. And NASA is spending $100,000 to find out if the theory can be put into practice.
For now, NASA describes the wind-powered robot concept as simply one of many “clever ideas” that may someday come to fruition. The idea is solid enough, though, that NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is plunking down $100,000 for a one-year study to examine the feasibility of creating a windbot that can explore Jupiter and similar planets. The study will look into building the bot, but also speculate how to keep such a spacecraft afloat for a long enough period to gather valuable (and yet unknown) data.
Because planets like Jupiter and Saturn have no solid surface to land on, NASA can’t just send up a rover to drive around and pick up samples the way the agency has done with the moon and Mars. In the past, other such exploration attempts have involved battery-powered probes, but that amounted to a pretty epic fail, as the probe couldn’t survive the heat and pressure of Jupiter’s atmosphere for more than an hour. By creating a turbulence-powered flying robot that could essentially bounce around in the atmosphere in response to conditions, as well as both generate and utilize energy from the winds of Jupiter, NASA engineers are hoping that a futuristic windbot could eliminate all the obstacles and allow us to learn more than ever before about those great gas giants in the sky.
Images via NASA/JPL-Caltech and NASA