Venus remains as one of the least explored planets of the Solar System, and for a good reason. Not a single robotic probe ever survived its harsh environment for more than a few hours. First, its surface is literally scorching hot and acidic. Second, it has crushing pressures that will break any dainty electronics brought there, if it doesn’t melt first.
NASA, in its stalwart efforts to eventually conquer Earth’s twin, have recently came up with simple, almost Soviet-era like solution to the Venusian problem: just make things a lot simpler.
The Steampunk Planetary Rover
NASA has submitted last week a technical proposal that conceptualizes a new type of Venus surface exploration probe. As hinted earlier, the core idea is to build the probe in its most crude design, a “clockwork rover”, that can survive the extreme environment of Venus for extended periods of time.
Think of the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity, or Curiosity, but instead of all the post-2000 era space tech, we’d instead fly right back into the Venera probes era. In fact, the idea even goes further back, as the report hinted building something that would be similar to Charles Babbage’s archaic adding machine. This means onboard computers using all spokes, gears n’ stuff, without a single trace of our modern electronics. The steampunk probe would then be mounted onto a crude First World War-esque track, as seen above, which will serve as its basic propulsion system.
To send data to another probe in orbit, it would make use of its equally simple visual signaling. Just like in the classic maritime days of old, the purely mechanical rover will send highly reflective visual signals. The data would then be promptly received by the orbiting probe, which would execute the complex electronic calculations from a safe distance.
The Trek to Venusian Hell
The complete avoidance in electronics was, of course, a decision made in order for the probe to withstand the unforgiving elements of the Venusian surface. As the proposal succinctly points out, “Venus is too inhospitable for the kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover.” In fact, just about any kind of electronics system, along with its complex cooling and protective mechanisms, will simply burn and melt on the planet’s surface.
This also means that building durable hardware isn’t just a priority, as every design aspect of the “clockwork probe” needs to be expanded upon for long term use. How long you ask? The proposal projects a year-long trek into Venusian hell. This means outright surpassing the best thing mankind sent there several times over.
Venus has been one of the most intriguing study destinations for astronomers for decades. The comparatively woeful number of Venus missions compared to Mars missions directly shows just how much of a challenge conquering Earth’s twin really is. Maybe someday we can travel normally on its surface with whimsical deflective shielding technology. But for now, it seems the best thing we can do is to go low-tech.