NASA’s Curiosity Rover was a successful example of a probe landing on the rocky surface of Mars. What happens when other planets or exploration objects do not offer this great advantage of solid surfaces to land on?
An icy planet is also fit for the kind of technology at NASA’s disposal. New Horizons flying by a number of objects throughout its over nine-year long mission is also an option. Yet, it fails to provide as much data as Mars’s Curiosity Rover for instance.
To explore gas giants there is no available solution yet. But that is about to change, as NASA awarded a team of scientists a 100,000 dollars granted through the NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program.
The team, led by Adrian Stoica, developed the concept of windbots. These would allow NASA to explore the gas giants in our system, like Jupiter and Saturn from close and over a long period of time. Solar powered bots, or nuclear-powered bots are not the best tool for outer-planet exploration.
Windbots however would be exclusively harnessing the wind gusts. According to NASA statement issued on Wednesday, the windbots would be:
“a new class of robotic probe designed to stay aloft in a planet’s atmosphere for a long time without wings or hot-air balloons”.
The lead researcher, Adrian Stoica developed the concept of these new probes that would harness turbulence. Wind that changes intensity and direction is ideal for powering the windbots. The wind-powered probes are still in concept phase for now. The award by NIAC would help bring windbots beyond this stage, with a prototype expected soon.
Adrian Stoica, who is now part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory team and the lead researcher for developing the windbots stated that wind:
“It’s a spring of energy a probe could drink from”.
Indeed, staying aloft would not require more than gusts of wind to harness, regardless of strength or velocity.
The leader of the research team offered one example to better understand how the windbots would function:
“A dandelion seed is great at staying airborne. It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for long time, carried by the wind. We’ll be exploring this effect on windbot designs.”
If the windbots are to take to Jupiter or Saturn, the researchers will need to know how the wind here functions in order to develop a bot model. For now, there are many unknown variables. But the JPL team working on the windbots is convinced the concept will turn into a successful venture for wind-borne probes for outer-planet exploration, and not only.
Provided the costs of the new technology are not too prohibitive, Stoica and his team can see a network of windbots floating in Jupiter’s or Saturn’s atmosphere, and why not, in Earth’s as well.
Photo Credits jpl.nasa.gov
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