Venus has always been a terrible place to try to land. 842 degrees F temperatures and 90 times the atmospheric pressure that exists on Earth tend to fry delicate electronics. The last attempt to land on Venus was done by the Soviets 30 years ago and only lasted a few hours. A team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is proposing a concept for a Venus lander called Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). It uses some technologies that seem positively retro to help the probe survive on Venus for up to a year.

AREE to be powered by the wind

Most space probes are powered either by solar panels or devices that use the heat generated by the decay of plutonium to create electricity. AREE will use something the surface of Venus has in abundance to produce power, wind.

A mechanical computer

The really fascinating technology that has been proposed for the AREE is a mechanical computer, inspired by the Difference Engine created by Charles Baggage in the 19th Century. The Difference Engine used moving mechanical parts to make complex calculations. The device remained a curiosity and never came into common use. However, some of the principles of Babbage’s engine were incorporated into electronic computers of the 20th Century.

An even older version of a mechanical computer was the Antikythera mechanism, a device used by ancient Greeks to predict astronomical phenomena such as eclipses.

Using Morse code to communicate with Earth

The third retro innovation that AREE would use is Morse Code, which would be transmitted to a pair of balloons that would relay the messages to Earth.

The dot-dash code would replace the modern, fast radio transmissions that most space probes use.

One problem

One of the reasons that mechanical computers never took off and Morse code is no longer widely used is that they are slow compared to their electronic counterparts. The team that is developing the AREE is sacrificing speed for survivability.

Will the latter be sufficient to eschew the former? That depends on whether or not someone develops hardened electronics that can survive Venus’ harsh conditions.

Still, one has to credit the AREE team for some pretty neat outside-the-box thinking. Their probe sounds like something out of a steampunk story, set in an alternate universe where 19th Century people developed technologies based on mechanical devices and steam power, possible to be sure, but never realized in real life. AREE may or may not get the funding for a mission, but it surely could be worth doing just for the sheer novelty of the approach.