NASA is working on 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 device, dubbed a windbot, could be used to investigate weather systems here on Earth, remaining buoyant in the clouds, or gather data from the atmosphere of a distant gas giant planet, like Jupiter.
The windbot is the brainchild of engineers at Recently a team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Their work comes under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, which looks at visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions.
As with many innovative engineering concepts, nature has been an inspiration to designers.
“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,” says Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at JPL.
Gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn present unique difficulties for exploration. Unlike the moon and Mars, where robotic rovers can travel across the surface, gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn have no solid surface on which a probe to land on.
So far, exploration of the atmosphere has been short-lasting. In 1995, for example, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped off an atmospheric probe that descended into Jupiter under a parachute. The battery-powered probe survived only about an hour before burning up in the high heat and pressure as it fell deeper into the atmosphere.
A windbot, however, could remain aloft in a zone where it could function, using rotors on several sides of its body that could spin independently to change direction or create lift.
The engineers are looking at powering the windbot by using energy available in the planet’s atmosphere – winds, temperature variations and even a planet’s magnetic field could potentially be sources of energy an atmospheric probe could exploit, they say.
More information on the windbot project here: http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/could-windbots-someday-explore-the-skies-of-jupiter and more information about the NAIC program here: http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/index.html
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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