US space agency NASA is known for its next-gen inventions that help in space explorations and different teams at the agency are constantly looking at possible options to broaden their horizons technologically.
Few weeks back we reported about one of NASA’s team studying whether a soft robotic eel like rover could help in exploration of icy moons like Europa. Now we have NASA confirming that they are studying and exploring the possibilities of using buoyant ‘Windbots’ that could say afloat in the clouds of Earth or distant gaseous planets like Jupiter.
NASA revealed that a team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is investigating the feasibility of creating a windbot capable of staying afloat in a planet’s atmosphere for a long time without wings or hot-air balloons. Researchers are looking to systematically investigate how future spacecraft of this kind could stay airborne and harvest energy.
There is no plan to use such windbots anywhere for exploration purpose and the team is just performing an initial assessment in a hope that their study will carve out new paths and open new avenues for atmospheric science on gas giant planets using high-mobility robotic explorers.
One of the main reasons why rovers like the one used on Mars can’t be used on Jupiter and Saturn is that the two planets are gas giants and possess no solid surface for rovers to land.
Back in 1995, 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 succumbing to high heat and pressure as it fell into the planet’s ponderously deep atmosphere.
In contrast to the plummeting probe, a windbot could have rotors on several sides of its body that could spin independently to change direction or create lift.
Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at JPL, explains the concept of windbots using a dandelion seed. Stoica says that a dandelion seed is great at staying airborne. The seed rotates as it falls and this rotation creates a lift, which allows it to stay afloat for long time, carried by the wind. Stoica added that they will be looking at this particular effect and how it fits their windbot designs.
Another aspect of windbots that the team is studying is the source of energy. The team is looking into various options for energy generation such as wind, temperature, and planet’s magnetic field. The team believes that one of the best sources of energy could be turbulence — wind that’s frequently changing direction and intensity. The team says that they are looking at options of using high and low gradients – differences in energy – as potential sources of energy for the windbots.
“It’s a spring of energy a probe could drink from,” said Stoica, who thinks a windbot might generate power in a similar way to some wristwatches that can be wound by shaking.
Some of the other things that the JPL team is looking into are wind characteristics on Jupiter to determine some of the technical requirements for the windbot’s design. The team says that one thing they are certain about is that a windbot would need to be able to sense the winds around itself in order to live off the turbulence. To that end, they plan to build a simple windbot model as part of their study. The aerodynamic modeling for this type of craft is particularly difficult, so Stoica thinks having a physical model will be important.
As far as testing of the windbots go, the team is planning to test it under 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.
The windbot concept is a long way from being ready to launch to Jupiter, but Stoica and colleagues are excited to dive into their initial study. “We don’t yet know if this idea is truly feasible. We’ll do the research to try and find out,” he said. “But it pushes us to find other ways of approaching the problem, and that kind of thinking is extremely valuable.”