NASA is asking the public to help them explore "hell," as the agency terms it — the roasting surface of the planet Venus.
The cloud-shrouded planet is so socked in that its surface — which is covered in lava flows and possibly active volcanoes — soars to oven-like temperatures of 840 degrees Fahrenheit (450 degrees Celsius). The surface pressure is so great that it would quickly crush a nuclear submarine, according to NASA.
But NASA has plans to deploy a very hardy rover to the surface, and the agency is asking the public to design a sensor to ride on this early-stage conceptual vehicle. Called Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), the vehicle will use wind power to spend several months carefully crawling Venus' surface. The vehicle requires the sensor to navigate obstacles in its environment, such as rocks and steep terrain.
This vehicle is not ready to ship to Venus just yet. AREE is part of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which studies very nascent technology to make it more ready for the rigors of space exploration. NASA has not yet formally approved the AREE mission for launch, but the agency is hoping the tech will be used someday on the surface of Venus, upon which no spacecraft has landed since 1985. That last mission was the Soviet Union's Vega 2, which like predecessor landers, succumbed within a short while to the extreme environment on Venus' surface.
"Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets, but Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life as we know it," Jonathan Sauder, principal investigator for AREE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. "By getting on the ground and exploring Venus, we can understand what caused Earth and Venus to diverge on wildly different paths and can explore a foreign world right in our own backyard."
Several prizes will be awarded for sensor concepts; the device must be able to withstand the extreme temperatures and pressures of the surface. One common problem, NASA said, is that state-of-the-art electronics fail at just over 250 F (120 C).
First place for the sensor idea will receive $15,000, with other prizes of $10,000 (for second place) and $5,000 (for third place). Submissions are due by May 29, and NASA will announce the winners in July. More details about sensor submissions and contest eligibility are available at the HeroX crowdsourcing platform, which is hosting the contest on behalf of JPL and the NASA Tournament Lab.
- The 10 weirdest facts about Venus
- How Venus turned into hell, and how the Earth is next
- Living on planet Venus: Why it would be hard (infographic)
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