- Nasa engineers are developing windbots to float in Jupiter’s atmosphere
- The robotic probes will be able to harvest energy from the planet’s wind
- It will allow scientists to study the gas giant’s dense atmosphere in detail
- They could also be used to study hurricanes and tornadoes here on Earth
A fleet of robots capable of floating through the clouds of Jupiter and drawing energy from the planet’s wind are being developed by Nasa. Engineers at the US space agency are drawing up designs for ‘windbots’ which can stay aloft in a planet’s atmosphere for long periods of time. Nasa wants a new class of robotic probe to study the atmosphere of gas giant plants like Jupiter and Saturn, which have no solid surface which a rover could land. Instead a windbot would bob through the turbulent atmosphere, harvesting energy from the winds that whip across the enormous planet.
Dr Adrian Stoica, principal investigator at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is the principal investigator for the windbots study, said: ‘A dandelion seed is great at staying airborne. ‘It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for long time, carried by the wind. We’ll be exploring this effect on windbot designs. ‘Nasa has once before attempted to probe Jupiter’s dense atmosphere when in 1995 the Galileo spacecraft dropped a probe towards the planet on a parachute. The battery-powered probe survived for little more than an hour before it was destroyed by the intense heat and pressure in Jupiter’s stormy atmosphere. A windbot, by comparison, would be able to keep afloat to prevent it from falling too deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere and being crushed. For example, it could have rotors on several sides of its body that could spin independently to change direction or to give it life. Dr Stoica and his colleagues believe that to stay airborne the windbot will also need to be able to harvest energy from the planet’s atmosphere, perhaps drawing it from the intense winds that blow across Jupiter. Traditional spacecraft power sources such as nuclear power would be too heavy while solar power could prove too unreliable in the thick atmosphere of Jupiter, particularly when on the dark side of the planet. Dr Stoica said the turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter could provide a useful source of power by buffeting the windbot to generate energy much like a kinetic wristwatch.
Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere (shown above) is sculpted into a beautiful marble effect when viewed at a distance, but the extreme pressures there can tear spacecraft apart if they sink too deep. Scientists hope to explore the atmosphere of Jupiter to learn whether the planet has a rocky core or is totally made of gas
However, he said: ‘There are a lot of things we don’t know. Does a windbot need to be 10 metres in diamtre or 100 metres? ‘How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep a windbot aloft?’ The team intend to build model windbots to test how they might stand up in the conditions such a probe might experience on Jupiter. They believe it could also be used to study some of the most powerful weather events on Earth, such as hurricanes and tornadoes.
Although Nasa has not yet scheduled a mission that could use windbots, it has ploughed $100,000 into a one year project to develop them. Dr Stoica said: ‘We don’t yet know if this idea is truly feasible. We’ll do the research to try and find out. ‘But it pushes us to find other ways of approaching the problem, and that kind of thinking is extremely valuable.’ Nasa’s Juno spaceprobe, however, should give scientists some idea of what to expect when it arrives at Jupiter in July 2016 after a five year journey from Earth. It is due to orbit the giant gas planet for more than a year, searching for clues about how the planet formed, whether it has a rocky core and looking for signs of water in its atmosphere. The probe will then plunge into the atmosphere at the end of its mission where it will be destroyed, but not before sending back vital insights into what the biggest planet in our solar system is like.
The only spacecraft to have ventured into the atmosphere of Jupiter was a tiny battery powered probe launched by the Galileo spacecraft in 1195, shown in the artists impression above. The intense heat and pressure experienced as it plummeted through Jupiter’s atmosphere saw it destroyed in under an hour