Steampunk Venus rover ideas win NASA contest to 'explore hell' with clockwork robots

This collage highlights the 15 finalists in NASA's "Exploring Hell" competition, which tasked the public with coming up with innovative designs for crafts to send to Venus.  (Image credit: NASA/HeroX)

A future Venus rover could be decked out with steampunk-esque rollers and fenders as it carefully explores a planet that is so hot that the environment has destroyed other spacecraft within mere minutes of landing.

These ideas of using "rollers and fenders," which would replace traditional spacecraft sensors, were just some of the designs the public suggested after NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory asked for help this spring in designing the new Venusian machine. JPL is considering including some of these innovative concepts from the public on a Venus rover first proposed under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which aims to explore far-out ideas..

JPL is hoping to go back to Venus, a world that has only seen surface exploration from a handful of Soviet Union Venera missions in the 1970s and 1980s. These reinforced spacecraft, capable as they were for their era, couldn't quickly succumbed to the oven-temperature heat and deep-water-like pressure of Venus' surface. Nobody has dared try landing since, although several countries have sent missions to look at Venus from above.

Related: What Would It Be Like to Live on Venus? 

JPL's new rover concept from the contest, however, could make a new landing possible. The craft would use a small wind turbine and springs to move around, reducing its dependence on computers and advanced equipment. Named Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments, the steampunk-like design would rely on mechanical locomotion to perform operations and follow instructions autonomously. The mission could last for months on Venus' surface if all goes according ot plan.

The public responded in the hundreds to JPL's request for ideas to replace traditional spacecraft sensors – sensors that would not last for long on Venus. Administered through the NASA Tournament Lab and the HeroX crowdsourcing platform, JPL received 572 entries (both team and individual) from 82 countries. The first-place winner received $15,000 and cash prizes were awarded for some other winners and finalists as well.

"The response from the community was incredible and better than I ever dreamed," Jonathan Sauder, a senior mechatronics engineer at JPL, said in a statement. "There were so many great ideas and well-developed concepts that in addition to first, second, and third place, we decided to add two finalists and another 10 honorable mentions in recognition of the amazing work people put into this project."

The first-place winner, Youssef Ghali, also won first prize for a previous NASA Tournament Lab competition called the Next Generation Animal Tracking Ideation Challenge. The full list of awardees is below.

Final Awards

  • First Place: "Venus Feelers" by Youssef Ghali
  • Second Place: "Skid n' Bump - All-mechanical, Mostly Passive" by Team Rovetronics
  • Third Place: "Direction Biased Obstacle Sensor (DBOS)" by Callum Heron
  • Best Prototype: "AMII Sensor" by KOB ART
  • Most Innovative: "ECHOS: Evaluate Cliffs Holes Objects & Slopes" by Matthew Reynolds

Honorable Mentions

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • newtons_laws
    Whilst a Venus surface rover could utilise more mechanical rather than electrical propulsion methods it still has to have some onboard electronics in order to take measurements and most importantly maintain radio communication with an orbiter to send back data. With surface temperatures of about 465 deg Celsius this is no easy task. Gallium Arsenide based electronics can operate at higher temperatures than silicon based electronics (over 300 deg C operation has been demonstrated for GaAs devices), but even so if the electronics is merely thermally insulated from the external Venus surface conditions it would only be able to operate for a few hours at best until the heat penetrates the insulation and raises the electronics temperature above its operating limit, so to operate continuously there would need to be active refrigeration powered by some source such as an RTG or even wind turbine as illustrated in some of the NASA contest entries. Alternatively at least for the radio transmitter an interesting possibility occurs to me - old fashioned thermionic valves aka "tubes" should be able to operate at Venusian ambient temperatures, so maybe Venus rovers should use those rather than solid state electronics, that really would be a "steampunk" rover! :tonguewink: