Nasa Venus rover
AREE is a clockwork rover inspired by mechanical computers. A JPL team is studying to determine how this kind of rovers could explore extreme environments, like the surface of Venus.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Nasa is currently exploring designs to create a rover that can withstand the extreme conditions of Venus. The design concepts for Nasa's Venus rover have been inspired by clockwork computers and World War I-era tanks. Given that Venus' average surface temperature is 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius), which according to Nasa is "high enough to melt lead", the space agency is looking to develop a rover that can have appropriate mobility while also withstanding the planet's harsh environment.

However, since Nasa's designs for the rover are inspired more by old fashioned mechanics rather than new-age technologies, they look more like something out of Mad Max than Star Trek. "Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover," said JPL mechatronics engineer Jonathan Sauder. "But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year."

Sauder was the first to propose Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) in 2015, a programme that offers engineers grants to come up with "out-there" early-stage space exploration tech and is funded by Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts programme. AREE is looking to reduce the space agency's dependence on electronic components when developing future spacecraft to Venus lander missions, possibly by replacing them with throwback gear-based calculation engines. The rover is also expected to be partly powered by wind turbine.

So far, no spacecraft has been able to withstand the extreme conditions of Venus for more than 24 hours, according to Nasa. In 1967, Russia's Venera 4 probe was the first to enter the planet and send back information. Three years later, Venera 7 made a successful soft landing but only lasted 23 hours before it too bit the dust. In 1982, Venera 13, which lasted for around two hours in the hostile environment, sent back 14 colour and eight black-and-white photos of the planet and even analysed a Venusian rock. However, since then, space missions have shifted to exploring other planets on the solar system, including Mars and Saturn.

"When you think of something as extreme as Venus, you want to think really out there," said Evan Hilgemann, a JPL engineer working on high temperature designs for AREE. "It's an environment we don't know much about beyond what we've seen in Soviet-era images."

The Venus rover is now in its second phase of development, with the JPL team selecting parts of the AREE concept that need to be refined. "Team members hope to flesh out a rover concept that will eventually be able to study the geology of Venus and perhaps drill a few samples," Nasa said in a statement.