ROBOT SEEDS to be scattered into upper atmosphere of JUPITER: NASA scheme

'Windbot' study funded at JPL


Jupiter and Saturn - mighty gas giants of the Outer System beyond the asteroid belt. How to explore them, given that their lower atmospheres are a roiling, superheated, overpressurised hell?

Answer: flying robots which would use the energy of the medium in which they travel to stay high up in the survivable layer. The so-called "windbots" would be packages of sensors built into a lightweight frame that could stay aloft for weeks or months at a time using propellers or a morphing body shell to harvest energy from the high-speed winds that blow around the gas giant's atmosphere.

"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," said Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for a new study at NASA JPL. "We'll be exploring this effect on windbot designs."

Jupiter is the biggest planet in the Solar System, and poses unique challenges for exploration because of its huge size and composition. There's no firm surface (that we know about) for a rover to traverse, and the killing heat and pressure in its lower atmosphere can defeat man-made machines.

In December 1995 the Galileo spacecraft sent a 340-kilogram titanium probe down into Jupiter's stormy depths. The probe lasted 57.6 minutes before being crushed by pressure 23 times that found on Earth. The last temperature recorded was 153 Celsius (307 Fahrenheit), and even if it had survived the pressure, the rising temperatures would have vaporized the explorer.

The windbot concept wouldn't attempt such deep exploration, but is instead envisioned as a swarm of floating sensors in the upper atmosphere that could send data back to a mothership for relaying to Earth. Ground control could send them off to scout new areas, and could add more windbots if necessary.

"One could imagine a network of windbots existing for quite a long time on Jupiter or Saturn, sending information about ever-changing weather patterns," Stoica said. "And, of course, what we learn about the atmospheres of other planets enriches our understanding of Earth's own weather and climate."

To test out the concept, Stoica and his team will work on different designs and test them out in windy parts of the US. With something this radical there are going to be some interesting designs up for consideration, and he admitted the idea might not be possible using technology we have today.

But Jupiter is calling and there are plenty of missions planned to the Solar System's Big Daddy. NASA's Juno probe, launched in 2011, will get to the planet next year (carrying three Lego astronauts) and the agency's Europa Clipper is planned for launch in 2025 to explore the Jovian moon Europa, and might pack a windbot or too as well. ®

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