Jupiter windbots could one day roam skies of the gassy giant

24 Jul 2015

An artist's rendering of one of the windbots that could one day roam Jupiter. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

While recent successes of space exploration have been able to show us celestial bodies of rocky terrain, our solar system neighbour Jupiter is a violent, gassy behemoth, and one day windbots might be recruited to help us explore it.

Very different to anything else that has been sent into space so far, the windbot design proposed by NASA appears to solve one of the biggest problems for finding out more about our solar system’s largest planet.

So far, most of our understanding of the planet and scientific data has come from distant spacecraft observing the gassy giant.

Meanwhile, our only-ever attempt to send a spacecraft through the planet’s thick atmosphere — Galileo in 1995 — was a rather short endeavour given that the extreme heat and hostile environment killed the craft in less than an hour.

But now, a new one-year study undertaken as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme is looking at developing the windbot robotic probe that could stay aloft in its atmosphere for a long, long time.

According to the principal investigator on the study, Adrian Stoica, much of this windbot concept’s design is taking the example of nature and following the humble dandelion.

“A dandelion seed is great at staying airborne,” Stoica says. “It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for a long time, carried by the wind. We’ll be exploring this effect on windbot designs.”

Powered by Jupiter’s violent storms

Powered by the violent, turbulent movements of gases in Jupiter’s atmosphere, Stoica and his team see this as being the ideal power source for the craft, much like the way kinetic energy powers some wristwatches.

The only potential pitfall now is what data can the team base its design concept on, considering the lack of scientific data they can obtain from Jupiter, such as its wind speed.

“There are lots of things we don’t know,” Stoica said. “Does a windbot need to be 10 metres in diameter or 100? How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep a windbot aloft?”

The eventual goal would be to have an entire network of windbots circumnavigating the planet gathering data and then sending it back to Earth.

There are still a multitude of feasibility studies to be undertaken on the windbots project, but if its mission to Jupiter never occurs, its characteristics still have potential use for studying our own atmosphere.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic