NASA to award $15,000 to designer of key sensor for Venus rover in a competition open to public

NASA is seeking help from the public in designing an obstacle avoidance sensor for a possible future Venus rover and has announced a competition with the first-place prize of $15,000.

The first runners-up will grab $10,000 and the the third runenrs-up will take home $5,000, NASA said on Friday, adding that submissions will be accepted through May 29.

“Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets, but Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life as we know it,” said Jonathan Sauder, a senior mechatronics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“By getting on the ground and exploring Venus, we can understand what caused Earth and Venus to diverge on wildly different paths and can explore a foreign world right in our own backyard,” added Sauder, also principal investigator for the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) concept.

Venus is an extreme world. With a surface temperature in excess of 448 degrees Celsius and a surface pressure 90 times that of Earth, Venus can turn lead into a puddle and crush a nuclear-powered submarine with ease.

While many missions have visited our sister planet, only about a dozen have made contact with the surface of Venus before quickly succumbing to the oppressive heat and pressure.

The last spacecraft to touch the planet’s surface, the Soviet Vega 2, landed in 1985. Now, engineers and scientists at JPL are studying mission designs that can survive the hellish landscape.

Powered by wind, AREE is intended to spend months, not minutes, exploring the Venus landscape, NASA said.

AREE could collect valuable, long-term longitudinal scientific data. As the rover explores the planet, it must also detect obstacles in its path, such as rocks, crevices and steep terrain.

NASA said that the competition’s winning sensor will be incorporated into the rover concept and could potentially one day be the mechanism by which a rover detects and navigates around obstructions.

The difficulty of this challenge is in designing a sensor that does not rely on electronic systems.

Current state-of-the-art electronics fail at just over 440 degrees Celsius and would easily succumb to the extreme Venus environment.

That is why NASA is turning to the global community of innovators and inventors for a solution.

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