NASA contemplates high-flying 'windbots' for exploring gas giants

Turbulence is often a problem for aircraft. NASA researchers, however, are now thinking it might be just the way to power probes sent to explore Jupiter and Saturn.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
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An artist's conception of a windbot floating in the skies of Jupiter. This one looks like a polyhedron, but other designs are possible. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since January 2004, NASA's Mars Opportunity Rover has been puttering around on the Red Planet sending back images and data about our next neighbor out from the sun. But in executing the Mars rover missions, which departed Earth in July 2003, NASA scientists had a distinct advantage -- land. Mars is a rocky planet, so there was actually a surface where they could deposit their rover.

When it comes to gas giants like Saturn and Jupiter, that advantage doesn't exist, so researchers have to be resourceful. One way they might do that is through the creation of "windbots," NASA said in a statement Wednesday.

Windbots are "a new class of robotic probe designed to stay aloft in a planet's atmosphere for a long time without wings or hot-air balloons," said NASA. As part of a $100,000 study, funded by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, scientists in the space program are now looking into developing this new type of craft, though as of yet there is no mission planned that would use them.

The idea is that a windbot would rely upon turbulence in a planet's atmosphere to stay aloft. It wouldn't necessarily be constant streams of wind -- but differences in wind velocity and strength from which the windbots could gain their energy. "It's a spring of energy a probe could drink from," said Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at NASA'S Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Stoica added that one possible way in which windbots could power themselves is similar to how watches can be wound by the natural movements of the wearer's arm.

Stoica offered the dandelion as another kind of possible inspiration for windbots. "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."

As a next step, NASA says researchers will be characterizing the winds in the clouds of Jupiter to determine what kind of craft they need. "There are lots of things we don't know," Stoica said. "Does a windbot need to be 10 meters in diameter or 100? How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep a windbot aloft?"

After that, they'll begin building a model and subjecting it to "carefully controlled turbulent airflows." That will help them nail down the design and sort out what kind of sensors the windbot would need to orient itself and respond to the wind around it.

Stoica says that if the idea works out and winds up not being cost-prohibitive, it could be possible to deploy multiple windbots into a planet's atmosphere. "One could imagine a network of windbots existing for quite a long time on Jupiter or Saturn, sending information about ever-changing weather patterns," he said. "And, of course, what we learn about the atmospheres of other planets enriches our understanding of Earth's own weather and climate."