‘Windbot’ fleets would monitor weather on Jupiter (Wired UK)


Nasa wants to send fleets of robotic “windbots” to monitor Jupiter and Saturn’s weather patterns from the atmosphere.

A Jet Propulsion Laboratory team has been awarded $100,000 to carry out a feasibility study on the concept, which would theoretically allow astronomers to get closer than ever to the strange atmospheres of our solar system’s gas giants. 

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

Like many of Nasa’s proposed robotic space probes, the windbots would need to be entirely self-sufficient, using planetary forces or local energy to recharge — wind, temperature changes and Jupiter’s magnetic field are all being considered. 

It’s also vital any new Jupiter probe stay aloft — the Galileo probe, which coasted by Earth and Venus on its way to Jupiter more than a decade ago, managed to send only a few hours-worth of science measurements back to Nasa before plunging into the inhospitable planetary atmosphere on a parachute.

The proposed windbot would bob at a safe height, using rotors all over its surface to spin upwards or in any direction like a dandelion seed. “It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for long time, carried by the wind,” explained Stoica. “We’ll be exploring this effect on windbot designs.”

Picking up from the dandelion analogy, the JPL team also thinks wind will be the most likely energy source the windbots use. Stoica describes the changing velocity and turbulence as being like “a spring of energy a probe could drink from,” constantly ebbing and transforming — he compares the process to how kinetic energy is used to power watches when a wearer shakes their wrist.

There’s a lot more we need to learn about Jupiter’s atmosphere before sending a windbot to explore it, however. The team needs to engineer a self-sustaining robot that can not only glean energy from being thrown around by the turbulent atmosphere, but survive the ride. The team needs to study the wind patterns, to know where the best entry point into the atmosphere would be, and how to make the bot aerodynamic in a constantly changing environment. The answer will probably be a series of sensors all over the bot’s body, that can tell it where to move and when, according to the flow. Comments from Stoica show just what early days it is for the design: “Does a windbot need to be 10 metres in diameter or 100? How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep a windbot aloft?”

Cloud City, Venus
Cloud City, VenusNasa

The team plans on building a prototype with the fund money, and if it nails the concept in practice will transfer that knowledge to weather analysis here on Earth. But Stoica admitted the team has no idea if windbots will ever work. One significant drawback is that by relying on wind patterns to stay aloft and harness energy, any mission will take significantly more time — the bot will be bound to certain locations at certain times, and cannot roam free. However, if it’s designed to be a longterm project, measuring wind patterns on Jupiter for months or even years, that may not matter.

Nasa is already well-equipped to engineer land-based planetary rovers like Curiosity. But more left field designs are being explored for other less hospitable planets. This year a design for a “Roboeel” that could explore Jupiter’s icy satellite, Europa was awarded $100,000 by the same Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts initiative. Roboeel would propel and power itself underwater using energy from magnetic fields. Last year, another airborne prototype was proposed by Nasa, this time for studying Venus. The “lighter than air” probes would look like airships and could either carry scientific equipment, or a habitat and “ascent vehicle” that would allow two astronauts to explore Venus for a month.

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23 July 2015 | 12:34 pm – Source: wired.co.uk


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