An Earthling’s Guide to Road Tripping on Saturn

An Earthling’s Guide to Road Tripping on Saturn

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on Project Saturn Wheel.


In our last blog we spoke about the challenges and ideas that arose during the Saturn Wheel project.

Inspired by Saturn’s signature rings, pHacktory scientists Peter and Ahmad theorized that an external “hoola hoop” structure could provide a craft on Saturn with sensory capabilities extending beyond the craft’s main body, thus allowing for more sensitive detection of hazards and weather patterns and protecting the craft from damage (say, from a stray ammonia crystal blowing in the wind).

With the help of Ahmad’s passion for sensors and Peter’s flair for design (not to mention the pHacktory mentors’ wise input), this hoola hoop idea evolved into a much more sophisticated structure that could not only sense the craft’s surroundings, but also allow the craft to move and steer while expending as little of its precious energy as possible.

Instead of a simple ring around the craft, the Saturn Wheel team designed a sensor array and modular geodesic sphere to surround the craft. Parts of the sphere operate independently so that one or more can expand while others contract.

via GIPHY

Imagine that Hoberman sphere toy that movie scientists are always playing with — and then imagine if it were equipped with high-tech sails and carrying a powerful sensor array though an alien landscape. 

Now consider that the team created its design using low-cost, publicly-accessible programs and materials, including open-source or publicly-available software and a Raspberry Pi “brain”.

The team’s design has several benefits.

First, it enables the craft to move its sensors towards a stimulus for more information, or retract in order to avoid danger and strengthen the entire structure. The use of magnetic levitation and cleverly-designed arms gives the craft greater range to collect data with a limited number of sensors, as opposed to a more fixed design.

Second, the skeleton aids in propulsion by acting as a sail. The craft can harness those powerful Saturnian winds and ride convection currents rather than relying on limited (and heavy) fuel storage that would increase the risk of the craft sinking deeper into Saturn’s gaseous surface.

Finally, this design provides an energy-efficient method of steering. The craft can adjust part of its geodesic “sail” to catch a wind or draft and control the direction of its travel.

Right now, this craft only exists as a computer model. It’s waiting for some intrepid Makers to seize on the idea and build a physical prototype. If you think you might be that person — or even if you just have a love for numbers — the team’s notes and specifications are all publicly available on GitHub

Of course, much more work is needed before we launch a craft to explore the mysterious surface of Saturn. There remain questions about materials and fuel source (wind power has its limits) and fighting the gravity that would pull the craft ever-closer to the planet’s dense core. There are questions about on-planet conditions that remain unanswered. And, of course, there’s the possibility that this design could prove useful right here on Earth.

In the third and final installation in this series, we’ll talk about “What’s Next?” and speculate about the future of the Saturn Wheel idea.


Image credit: Thor Deichmann on Pixabay

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