NASA Tournament Lab

Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover

Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover

To explore the daunting surface of Venus, NASA needs an innovative obstacle avoidance sensor for its mechanical clockwork rover.

Challenge Overview

Imagine a world hot enough to turn lead into a puddle, where the atmospheric pressure can crush a nuclear-powered submarine. Now imagine sending a rover to explore that world. 

Venus, ancient sister of Earth with a planetary environment just this side of hellish, has been visited by a handful of probes since the early days of space flight.  Of the many missions to our celestial neighbor, only about a dozen have made contact with the surface of the planet. The longest-lived landers only managed to function for a couple of hours before succumbing to the relentlessly oppressive heat and pressure.

Despite the punishing conditions, previous missions to Venus have nevertheless delivered important information, such as:

  • Surface temperature: in excess of 450°C
  • Surface pressure: 92 times that of Earth
  • Wind speeds: 0.3 – 1.3 meters per second
    • Due to the extreme pressure, this low wind speed feels almost like gale-force winds here on Earth
  • Length of Venusian day: 116 Earth days

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), under a grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, is studying a mission concept to return to the surface of Venus, known as the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), something not accomplished since the Soviet Vega 2 landed in 1985.

Current, state-of-the-art, military-grade electronics fail at approximately 125°C, so mission scientists at JPL have taken their design cues from a different source: automatons and clockwork operations. Powered by wind, the AREE mission concept is intended to spend months, not minutes, exploring the landscape of our sister world. Built of advanced alloys, AREE will be able to collect valuable long-term longitudinal scientific data utilizing both indirect and direct sensors.

As the rover explores the surface of Venus, collecting and relaying data to an orbiter overhead, it must also detect obstacles in its path like rocks, crevices, and steep terrain. To assist AREE on its groundbreaking mission concept, JPL needs an equally groundbreaking obstacle avoidance sensor, one that does not rely on vulnerable electronic systems. For that reason, JPL is turning to the global community of innovators and inventors to design this novel avoidance sensor for AREE. JPL is interested in all approaches, regardless of technical maturity.

This sensor will be the primary mechanism by which the potential rover would detect and navigates through dangerous situations during its operational life. By sensing obstacles such as rocks, crevices, and inclines, the rover would then navigate around the obstruction, enabling the rover to continue to explore the surface of Venus and collect more observational data.

JPL has issued this Challenge to the global community because the rover must have the ability to successfully navigate in such a demanding environment in order to qualify for additional developmental funding. While the mission to the surface of Venus may be years off, the development of a suitably robust rover sensor will strengthen the case for returning to Venus with a rover, something that has never been attempted before.

What You Can Do To Cause A Breakthrough

  • Click ACCEPT CHALLENGE to sign up for the challenge
  • Read the Challenge Guidelines to learn about the requirements and rules
  • Share this challenge. Show your friends, your family, or anyone you know who has a passion for discovery.
  • Start a conversation in our Forum, or join an existing conversation, ask questions or connect with other innovators.
Updates 9

Challenge Updates

Announcing the Winners of the Exploring Hell Challenge!

July 6, 2020, noon PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are proud to announce the winners in the $30,000 Challenge - Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover!

By the submission deadline, we received 572 entries from over 80 countries. The Judging Panel was so thrilled by the number of outstanding and innovative entries that NASA is recognizing an additional 12 solutions! 

In addition to the $30,000 USD of planned prizes, NASA awarded an additional $4,000 split between the submission with the Most Innovative solution and the submission with the Best Prototype. Ten additional submissions are recognized as Honorable Mentions.

Additional details on the submissions can be found here. You are also invited to join us for a moderated discussion with the winners and NASA on Thursday, July 23 at 10:00 am PDT (Lost Angeles). Register Here

The top award recipients are as follows:

  • 1st Place, $15,000: "Venus Feelers" by Youssef Ghali.
  • 2nd Place, $10,000: "Skid n' Bump – All-mechanical, Mostly Passive" by Team Rovetronics.
  • 3rd Place, $5,000: "Direction Biased Obstacle Sensor (DBOS)" by Callum Heron.

NASA was incredibly impressed by two additional solutions and awarded $4,000 of unplanned prize money for:

  • Best prototype, $2,000: "AMII Sensor" by KOB ART.
  • Most innovative, $2,000: "ECHOS: Evaluate Cliffs Holes Objects & Slopes" by Matthew Reynolds.

While we were only able to award 5 prizes, there were very many outstanding entries and we would also like to acknowledge the following Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who entered the challenge. While we were only able to recognize a small fraction of those who entered, there were so many other insightful solutions, we are confident that many of the participants will do great things in the future. Thank you all for helping make this challenge a huge success.

We would also like to thank all of our supporters, partners, judges, and anyone else who in any way contributed to our competition community. Without you, we would not have had the challenge that we did.

Five Days Left to Submit (TIPS)

May 25, 2020, 8 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are quickly approaching the final days open for submission to the Exploring Hell Challenge The deadline is Friday, May 29 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time (New York/USA).

Here are a couple of last-minute tips for a smooth entry process:

1. Begin your submission process several days before the cutoff time. This allows you to ensure everything you have been working on can be seamlessly integrated into the form. 

2. Your submission will not be reviewed until you click the orange "Submit Entry" button at the top of the final review page. Please remember to do this! Once submitted, you will receive a confirmation email.

3. Review the Challenge Guidelines to ensure your submission is complete. Pay particular attention to the judging criteria which will be the scorecard used to evaluate your entry.

Thanks so much, and good luck to all!

1 Week Remaining

May 22, 2020, 3 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

There's exactly one week left to submit your solution to the Exploring Hell Challenge! 

You're so close. You can do this!  

Remember, the final submission deadline is Friday, May 29 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time (New York/USA). No submissions received after this time will be accepted, so make sure to get yours in as soon as possible. 

If you haven't already, we recommend watching the recording from last week's webinar:


Webinar Recording + Deadline Reminder

May 13, 2020, 9:46 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

Did you miss the Exploring Hell Challenge Webinar yesterday? We spoke with the team at NASA and answered your questions live! If you did not get the chance to attend, we strongly recommend watching the recording to get valuable insights into your submission.

The deadline for the challenge is quickly approaching! Submissions are due on Friday, May 29th at 5:00 pm Eastern Time (New York). We strongly recommend starting your solution early. You can revise your submission on HeroX up to the deadline


Exploring Hell Challenge Webinar

May 7, 2020, 11:56 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are hosting a second Q&A webinar for the Exploring Hell Challenge! This is your last chance to ask your questions live on a webinar.

On this webinar, you will hear a short presentation from Jonathan Sauder at JPL, followed by a question and answer period. If you have any questions for the webinar, please post them here. We'll be asking the questions with the most up votes, so please also vote up your favourite questions.

When: May 12 at 12:00 pm Eastern Time (New York)

Sign Up Now

Forum 331
Community 6K
Meet the Winners