NASA on Wednesday announced that “windbots” might hold the key to explore mighty giants of the outer solar system — Jupiter and Saturn. Unlike the Mars Rover, which had the advantage of landing a rover on the surface, it is not possible to explore the super-heated, over-pressured atmosphere of the planets.
These “windbots” will have packages of inbuilt sensors in a lightweight frame, allowing it to stay aloft for weeks or months using propellers or a morphing body. They can utilize energy from high-speed winds that blow around the gas giant’s atmosphere. These windbots are set to be developed as a part of NASA’s $100,000 Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
“A new class of robotic probe designed to stay aloft in a planet’s atmosphere for a long time without wings or our balloons,” NASA said.
Principal investigator for a new study at NASA JPL Adrian Stoica has explained their inspiration from a dandelion seed and how it stays airborne for a long time. Stoica added that they will be exploring this effect on windbot designs. Then, NASA’s researchers will be studying the winds in Jupiter, to figure out the type of craft they need. Stoica said that there are a lot of things they don’t know such as the diameter of the craft and the lift it needs to keep it aloft.
The concept would be tested in the windy areas of the US with different designs, allowing them to single out a windbot that can respond to the wind around it. NASA aims to scatter the windbots on Jupiter or Saturn, and they would stay there for a long time for sending information about its weather planets. NASA’s Juno probe launched in 2011, is set to reach the planet next year (carrying three LEGO astronauts). The agency’s Europa Clipper is scheduled for a launch in 2025 to explore the Jovian moon Europa, and might carry a windbot.
In NASA’s words:
The model windbot would be subjected to carefully controlled turbulent airflows to determine how best to design systems that react and reorient the robot to keep it aloft. After that, the team would move on to investigating means, such as electronic sensors, for a windbot to perceive the wind field in the environment around itself. Putting these capabilities together into a functional prototype would be left for a future study.
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