Interview: Evan Hilgemann, NASA Engineer, On The Role of Low-Tech Mechanics In Space
Watchonista interviewed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer before his recent Horological Society Of New York lecture.
To say that aerospace engineer Evan Hilgemann has other-worldly aspirations is an understatement. He works for NASA in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in sunny Pasadena, California. "JPL doesn't do much jet propulsion anymore," Hilgemann says, but it is the leader for robotic exploration of the solar system. He is working with a group of engineers to find a way to explore Venus's surface with a robot. The combination of the planet's blistering high temperatures and oppressive atmospheric pressure rapidly destroys electronic equipment, so his team are investigating other ways to achieve their goal.
Space Cowboys and Gearheads
So how did this NASA space engineer meet the people at HSNY? And why did he give a lecture to a group of watch fanatics? It turns out that he needs some old-fashioned mechanics in order to facilitate his Venus mission. In our exclusive interview, he explains why.
"I'm from Omaha, Nebraska, and I did an undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska in mechanical engineering. Since I was a kid, a teenager, I've been interested in the space program and space exploration. It's what motivated me to follow up on my undergraduate degree with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Michigan University.”
Hilgemann was fortunate enough to land his first real job at JPL. The laboratory is the leader for robotic exploration of the solar system. They're also the only people in the world who know how to land a rover on Mars successfully. Hilgemann explained, “We send spacecraft to Saturn and Jupiter in the inner solar system, and the outer solar system. We do telescopes. Basically, anything that involves robotic exploration of the universe, we're involved in."
Hilgemann works in a group called the Technology Fusion Group. He got involved with developing an automaton rover for Venus shortly after he started working at the JPL.
Venus is a very extreme environment in the solar system. At over 900°F, it's blistering hot, hot enough to melt lead, and destroy electronics. It also has a very high atmospheric pressure that's equivalent to being a kilometer underwater. So how does the Technology Fusion Group plan to explore this environment? How can they design a rover that can function and survive on Venus for extended periods of time?
“The idea we have is to get rid of the electronics,” says Hilgemann. “Venus is very windy, so we can get power from that and store it in springs. There's nothing fundamental about mechanical systems that can keep them from operating at 500 degrees celsius using specific materials. The problem to solve is how to assemble that and take into account the thermal expansion. It’s something that's physically possible.”
So Hilgemann and his team set about to create a very low-tech rover that would power itself. The robot’s materials needed to be impervious to Venus’ harsh conditions. The people in the Technology Fusion Group needed to prove that their concept of a fully mechanical machine that could propel itself indefinitely in order to receive additional funding for their project.
"We started the development of a mechanical clock that can operate on Venus' conditions. Developing a mechanical clock is a way to demonstrate several mechanical functions [operating] at the same time. The device will need springs, bearings, and gears, components that are also in a clock. And, a clock would be very useful on Venus. After a couple of years, with more funding, we refined our design for this mechanical clock and demonstrated it operating at 500°C. Which I was rather excited about!!!”
At this stage, the clock is a rough prototype. It’s not designed for accuracy or actual timekeeping, but rather to demonstrate the possibilities of the “foundational components,” as Hilgemann calls them, of the mechanics in Venus-like conditions. Like a clock, it holds power in its springs, harnesses energy (from the wind) for its movement, and releases the power in a controlled manner.
Getting Together with HSNY
Because the mechanics in the NASA prototype had so many similarities to watches and clocks, the TFG sought to connect with some authorities in the watchmaking world. They wanted to consult with watchmakers and scholars, as well as source component manufacturing for precision silicon components. And the rest is history, as they say.
"How we got connected with that Nicholas, and the HSNY was actually through a networking connection, a friend of a friend. HSNY gave great feedback when we were doing this mechanical clock. They also connected us with some startup companies that were making silicon components that are completely compatible with high temperatures. We are trying to make a very complex mechanical device that sits in a relatively compact package. Horological-type mechanics also came into play to construct a device that would self-propel, powered by Venus' constant winds, and fit the mechanics into a relatively small space."
Of course, as all watch geeks know, watchmaking is the best example of intricate mechanics fitting into a small space. We can watch our movements for hours and remain fascinated. So if the mechanics in the rover's "small space" make it into outer space, you can bet that it will be a cause of much celebration in the horological community and beyond. Or as Buzz Lightyear says, "to infinity, and beyond!"
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell and NASA)