Itty Bitty Space Probes

20 years ago I wrote an essay in response to a lecture given by Freeman Dyson.  He discussed big science and small science.  Small science tended to lose out to big science in the mad scramble for federal funding, in his experience.

At some point while writing the response, I realized that big science and small science could merge if one huge project could be devised out of thousands of small projects:  Small, interchangeable, mass-produced space probes could be launched to all corners of the solar system over the coming years, eventually creating one huge array of sensitive instrumentation, transmitting data on the nature of planets, asteroids, comets, the Sun, or the entire solar system to us.

But, it may be that accelerating science and technology has finally trumped my 20-year-old vision of what could be.  Instead of my one or two-pound, mass produced probes, this article describes the potential for launching thousands, eventually millions of computer chip-sized probes, very much like those described in Queen of Angels, a science fiction novel, by Greg Bear.

We may be almost 40 years ahead of schedule for the tech described in that novel (set at mid-21st century).  Here’s a teaser from the article for you:

Scale something down to the size of a dust particle and you’ll find it can stay aloft almost indefinitely, dancing in midair on thermal currents. With matter that size, the force of air striking the surface of the particle outmatches gravity’s effect on its tiny mass.

This behavior is more than just a curiosity: It could have profound implications for space exploration. Spacecraft have been getting bigger and bigger for decades, ballooning in size to carry ever more impressive equipment, from the Herschel Space Observatory‘s 3.5-meter telescope to the Cassini probe’s 11-meter magnetometer boom. But if we can reverse that trend and instead build the tiniest spacecraft possible, we can create entirely new ways to study the solar system and beyond.

Miniaturization will inevitably mean limitation—less power, fewer instruments, and reduced ability to store and broadcast data. But dust-mote-size spacecraft could do things that no current space probe can do: coast without a parachute onto the plains of Mars or float for weeks in the soupy atmosphere of Titan. They could be mass-produced and launched by the thousands to form vast space-based networks of sensors. And if the probes could be made thin and lightweight enough, alternative forms of propulsion could eventually send them to distant worlds, without the need for rocket fuel.

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