To say the environment on the surface of Venus is extreme might be viewed as an understatement by some: the hottest planet in the Solar System’s air cooks at a scorching 462ºC (864ºF), under crushing atmospheric pressure that is 92 times greater than Earth’s — and that’s not counting the corrosive effects of the sulphuric acid lacing the clouds. The result is an environment that severely limits the lifespan of manmade probes sent there, that are typically measured in timescales of mere hours, as opposed to the years-long missions enjoyed by Mars rovers.
But NASA is now looking to the comparatively low-tech example of analog computer technology to possibly construct a more robust Venus probe. Their chief inspiration: the 2,300-year-old Antikythera device.
NASA’s Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) program intends to develop a new probe, based not on modern electronics, but rather on a clockwork mechanism that will be used to make calculations and affect data storage and transfer. Referred to as "Stampunk computing" on JPL’s website, they point to various mechanical computers built throughout history as their inspiration, including the Difference Engine designed by Charles Babbage, a 19th century algebraic calculator, and of course the ancient Antikythera device, used for calculating astronomical positions, and ancient computer recovered from a 1st-century Roman shipwreck at the turn of the 20th century.
Although fraught with difficulty, the Soviet Union managed to land a number of probes on the surface of Venus, but due to the punishing conditions found there most of the probes that made it there only lasted around an hour — the current record holder is Venera 13 at 127 minutes, contrasted with the 13 years that the Opportunity rover has been studying the surface of Mars.
The proposed rover would use robust tank treads to roam the surface; wind turbines spinning in Venus’s dense atmosphere could provide power for the device; onboard computing would be handled by clockwork computers; and data transmission would be accomplished by the configuration of an onboard radar target that would flash signals in Morse code and viewed by an orbiter, that in turn would use conventional electronics to relay the data back to Earth.
"Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover," explains JPL mechatronics engineer Jonathan Sauder. "But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year."