A team of engineers funded by NASA are working on what could be the sole method of exploring Jupiter up close: a windbot. The concept is that such a machine could travel across the gas giant’s atmosphere using the wind both as a method of transportation and an energy source.
Robots have long been used by NASA to spearhead missions too risky for a human element. From orbiting drones to the rovers that trekked across the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, robots allow mankind to reach where no man has reached before.
While autonomous spacecraft could observe Jupiter from its orbit, NASA would like to be able to get a closer look. Land rovers would be useless on a gas giant, simply because such enormous planets have no solid surface to speak of.
So NASA commissioned a group of researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories to look into the possibility of a functional windbot. And the answer seems to be mostly positive.
Lead investigator of the study Adrian Stoica believes the windbot to be a feasible concept. He believes that the dandelion could be a great natural example to take inspiration from. According to him, a single dandelion seed can stay in the air for significant periods of time only by rotating itself and with a bit of help from the wind. A windbot could be based on a similar design.
But dandelion seeds do not remain airborne forever. In order to prevent the robot from descending too further into Jupiter’s centre and be crushed by sheer gravity, it would require a power source to boost its flight. Many of NASA’s machines have made great use of solar energy, but that may not be the case here.
The windbot would be travelling at significant speeds across the planet’s atmosphere and it could suddenly find itself on the night side of the gas giant. Furthermore, some gigantic clouds of gas could be blocking sunlight very difficult. A nuclear generator could be installed on the robot, but the current available technology would add a lot of weight to a machine that needs to be as light as possible.
The research team has proposed using the winds themselves as a main energy source. The windbot could search areas of greater turbulence, where it can use the rapidly changing wind currents in order to power itself up.
The concept is still in its infant stages, but it could our best bet of exploring the largest planet in our solar system. The windbot could be also used on the surface of Saturn, another gas giant.
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