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Space Science

Evaluating the Capabilities of Chip-Sized Spacecraft 96

Posted by Soulskill
from the remember-when-we-had-people-sized-spacecraft dept.
kgeiger writes "The Sprite project is testing the feasibility of chip-sized spacecraft. 'Rather than hand building one-of-a-kind spacecraft, we envision constructing spacecraft on wafers in much the same way that common integrated circuits are made today. During fabrication, solar cells and other components would be incorporated with microelectromechanical systems techniques. Instead of exhaustively testing each part, as is done with current spacecraft, engineers will be able to monitor Sprite quality in a less labor-intensive fashion by using statistical process control, testing a few chips from each batch to make sure they meet specifications.' The project's goal is to deploy true 'smart dust,' comprised of 5- to 50-mg single-sensor spacecraft capable of forming deep-space sensor arrays."
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Evaluating the Capabilities of Chip-Sized Spacecraft

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  • by RichMan (8097) on Friday July 29, 2011 @01:40PM (#36924080)

    How do we track them all? What happens when they die on mission?

    What happens when a human occupied vehicle crosses paths with one of these dead objects at 10,000km/h differentail speeds?

    We really should not be cluttering up planetary and solar orbits with "gravel", time has done a nice job of cleaning out all the intra-orbit space.

    • by sgt scrub (869860)

      What happens when a human occupied vehicle crosses paths with one of these dead objects at 10,000km/h differentail speeds?

      I'm sure you meant to say "just one of these". Regardless. Space gravel takes the fear of space collision to a whole other level.

    • by Ultra64 (318705)

      "What happens when a human occupied vehicle crosses paths with one of these dead objects at 10,000km/h differentail speeds?"

      The same thing that happens when it hits any other piece of space dust/debris.

    • by tp1024 (2409684)
      They are planned to be released in low orbit, where they will enter the atmosphere within a few months at most.
    • by Matheus (586080) on Friday July 29, 2011 @02:17PM (#36924722) Homepage

      Obligatory XKCD reference... http://xkcd.com/865/ [xkcd.com]

    • by wstrucke (876891)
      Shields and deflector arrays.
    • by suomynonAyletamitlU (1618513) on Friday July 29, 2011 @02:32PM (#36924992)

      What happens when a human occupied vehicle crosses paths with one of these dead objects at 10,000km/h differentail speeds?

      While I appreciate the sentiment (and agree), you really need to understand how amazingly, hugely, vastly much empty room there is in space. There are enormous calculations needed to hit something the size of jupiter, even if you start pointed in the right direction.

      Let's say a 1km asteroid is 10,000 km away, and you yourself are in a 1km (cross-section) spacecraft. To not hit it, you have to aim to be 1km in any direction away from it--.5km from half of your body, .5km from half of its body. In other words, to hit it, you have to point anywhere within a 1km radius of dead-on. Assuming no course corrections, you have to be pointed within about .005 degrees of the object center, in every direction. Put another way, a sphere of radius 10,000km is billions of square kilometers of surface area, more than twice that of the earth, and you would have to hit around one square kilometer of it.

      The moon, which is the only stellar object that could be accused of being close, is not 10,000km away; it's something more than 30x that far. At that range, the object could have a 30x greater cross-section and you'd still have that same tiny angular danger zone. Everything else is millions of km away. The only really clogged region (relatively speaking) is earth orbit, and that's because we have so much that we want to do and to leave in a relatively small space.

      Is polluting the solar system still a bad idea? Sure, probably. However, to be honest, by the time our spaceflight capabilities are up to travelling to other planets in earnest, we maybe able to shield against large particulates, and we'll know approximately where they are. (There's not much in the way of interference in space like there are in wind and water; there's solar wind, gravity wells, and inertia, and not much else.) The debris is also comparable to what you might expect from asteroid collisions, comet trails, and the like, which might be substantially harder to track. More importantly, there's a lot of science to be done before we're ready for all that, and this is at least partially helping progress that. Maybe.

      • by Zinho (17895) on Friday July 29, 2011 @03:08PM (#36925520) Journal

        The flaw in your reasoning is that there are very few interesting places in the solar system to go, so despite the very large volume available for navigating around these obstacles it's quite a bit more likely that a later space mission will be aiming for the exact same tiny angular zone as a previous one. It's similar to the current situation with satellites in Earth orbit - I occasionally hear about congestion in the geostationary orbits despite there being lots of potential orbits around the earth, some orbits are simply more desirable than others.

        Don't get me wrong, I understand that there are complexities I'm glossing over (consecutive launch opportunities to the same destination not passing through the same space as each other, for example). But when you said:

        The only really clogged region (relatively speaking) is earth orbit, and that's because we have so much that we want to do and to leave in a relatively small space.

        you glossed over the fact that any well-explored destination in the solar system is destined to become a "clogged region" for exactly the same reason that Earth is now. Compared to the volume of space contained in the Solar System, the interesting destinations represent a "relatively small space" not significantly larger than Earth's orbital zone.

        • While it's true we may end up going back to the same places over and over again, you aren't likely to see congestion until long after any particular location is settled--or at least manned. The resources necessary for interplanetary travel are enormous, so commercial satellites and unnecessary debris will only occur when there is local manufacturing. Local manufacturing isn't likely to be feasible without getting people there on a long-term basis, which is full of logistical hurdles we haven't crossed yet

        • "Space Exploration is not endless circles in low earth orbit." -Buzz Aldrin

          Is that a real quote? I can't find it anywhere.

          • by Zinho (17895)

            Yes, but I can't prove it, sorry =(

            It was said during a televised interview, and I liked it, so I made it my sig. My memory is that t it was on a major network like C-SPAN, and I assumed that it would be transcribed and on the internet shortly. You're the first person to point out that it's not on Google, and it caught me off guard; I'm kinda sad to suddenly be in [citation needed] territory. It may even bug me enough to change to something I can cite, but I'll keep looking for a while first. Thanks for

            • I trust your word good fellow, and the Internet now has this priceless quote etched into the fabric of time.
    • What happens when a human occupied vehicle crosses paths with one of these dead objects at 10,000km/h differentail speeds?

      What happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?
    • by elrous0 (869638) *

      And, more importantly, what's going to happen to my beloved BIG ASS ROCKETS that make lots of noise and look wicked cool at takeoff? You can't very well film home video of a tiny rocket launch and edit it with "Rock Me Like a Hurricane" playing in the background, now can you? NOW CAN YOU?

    • The air force is capable of tracking things as small as 1 cm2, which is the size of these chips. Furthermore, you track and avoid them like everything else in orbit. Their orbital information is added to the huge databases that allow mission planners to use a safe trajectory. Proposed ChipSat missions like this are meant to act as an array that follows a common orbit. As for mission lifetime, federal regulations specify that almost without exception, any assets you put in low earth orbit must be able to n
    • by melikamp (631205)

      All of your questions about this 'smart dust' (and more!) were answered by Stanislaw Lem in his Peace on Earth.

      OT: CmdrTaco, seriously, it's 2011. A "geek" board without Unicode support? We can't even spell internationally known names correctly.

      • All of your questions about this 'smart dust' (and more!) were answered by Stanislaw Lem in his Peace on Earth.

        OT: CmdrTaco, seriously, it's 2011. A "geek" board without Unicode support? We can't even spell internationally known names correctly.

        Wasn't it "The Invincible"?

    • 5mg is about the mass of a grain of sand, not all that disproportionate to a micrometeoroid. If the human carrying spaceship can't survive a collision with such a mass, I think we've got bigger things to worry about. Cluttering the orbit zones with this stuff may pose a problem from a "grit" perspective, but nothing that can't be solved with some wipers.
  • With all the existing trouble with space debris, the idea of putting more probably untrackable small items in space seems scary.
    • by SomePgmr (2021234)
      The article talks about using them for missions into the atmosphere of Titan, sending them to Mars, or for deep space exploration.

      Doesn't sound like anyone is planning to put 100,000 of these in earth orbit, aside from the 3 or 4 Endeavour put up to test in space.
  • I wonder why someone like Gene Amdahl didn't think of this before.
  • Propulsion? (Score:4, Informative)

    by mrxak (727974) on Friday July 29, 2011 @01:42PM (#36924116)

    Much of the weight and size in spacecraft is not the instruments, it's the fuel and engine. I get that you need a lot less of both if you've got a small mass, but still, how are you going to move the thing around?

    TFA says they'll need some crazy new propulsion system, so yeah, we won't be seeing chip ships any time soon, probably.

    • Could use some kind of miniaturized hall effect drive or some other electrodynamic propulsion. I'm not sure if it would scale down to this size, but theoretically electrodynamic tethering could make a system mobile with no propellant at all.
  • How do they plan to keep radiation from frying the chips?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The deflector shields protect them, just like all of the rest of our space ships. Duh!

    • by uncanny (954868)
      That's a good point, i like baked better, less fat that way!
  • Try our new spaceship bits: prefabricated crunchy plastic wafers, abandoned and ready for all your satellite destroying needs.
  • I really first read "ship"-sized...
  • by ThatsNotPudding (1045640) on Friday July 29, 2011 @01:54PM (#36924330)
    but don't come crying to me when the replicators show up.
  • On our way to space-faring nanomachines, that may employ a collective intelligence.

    It would be such a shame if they cannot replicate. After all, what can POSSIBLY go wrong?

    • hey, the self-replicating machines infesting Earth have only converted a miniscule portion of the planet's mass in to more of themselves.

      Now if we could design some that could go to an asteroid, digest it, bring it back and building a orbital ring, that'd be nifty.
      • Now if we could design some that could go to an asteroid, digest it, bring it back and building a orbital ring, that'd be nifty.

        And it would be even niftier, if, after doing that, it refrained from digesting the Earth and going out to an asteroid and building a ring around the asteroid....

      • by arisvega (1414195)
        As long as they do not convert the mass I am using for my survival and, uhm, for my existence in the material plane (as in "my body"), I think we can get along- should they get any ideas of messing with my synapses though, I would like to have access to a kill switch.
  • Am I the only one who immediately thought of a flying potato chip?
    • by wmain (636792)

      We can call them layships ( as in Lay's potato chips, could be a Canadian only thing...)

  • Every time I see the beautiful pictures from a couple guys who put a camera in a balloon and send it 100,000 ft up, I always wonder how big of a rocket is the minimum needed to get something hand-sized or smaller into orbit.

    I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations once and determined I wouldn't be launching anything from my backyard anytime soon. Has anyone else taken a closer look at this though?
    • by kcbnac (854015)

      Hmmm...interesting possibility. Fixed-frame ring of balloons, with the 'payload' center elevated slightly above the balloons? Get to a certain altitude, and the rocket kicks in - you're not starting from 0 m/s - and you don't have to have enough fuel for the entire launch. Remotely vent the balloons, pick it back up (because you installed GPS and transmitting capability) for re-use.

      Big problem: We only have so much helium on the planet.

      • by Yaur (1069446)
        Even from a 100k up you need a lot of fuel to get into orbit and getting it there with helium is impractical... that was my conclusion from doing similar back of the envelope calculations anyway.
      • Big problem: We only have so much helium on the planet.

        We do, however, have plenty of hydrogen. That could be used instead of helium and we can send as many balloons as we wanted without a whole lot of fear of "running out" of the lift fuel.

      • by chill (34294)

        Solution to big problem -- use hydrogen. On an unmanned balloon launch platform, 100 Km in the air, who the hell cares if an accident catches it on fire?

        The only reason the Hindenburg was a disaster is because there were people on it. Remove the people and it isn't a disaster, it is an expense. An insurable expense.

    • by Asic Eng (193332)

      Has anyone else taken a closer look at this though?

      Yes, these guys. [copenhagen...bitals.com] They just launched a test rocket on June 3rd this year.

    • I always wonder how big of a rocket is the minimum needed to get something hand-sized or smaller into orbit. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations once and determined I wouldn't be launching anything from my backyard anytime soon. Has anyone else taken a closer look at this though?

      That's kind of like taking a closer look at the boiling point of water or the value of G - there's no point. The answer is well known. (And your BOTE is correct.)

      • Well if I make enough money someday, and something like this actually is feasible, albeit with lots of time and say a $20k rocket, then I'd much rather get a cheap $20k car and a satellite than a fancy $40k car.

        So in that sense there's more reason (at least for me) to take a closer look at this than the value of G.
  • Just a thought. Doesn't a cloud of something in space have an over all mass? Wouldn't each object gravitate towards the center?

    • by Baloroth (2370816)
      Ummm, you are aware of how weak the gravitational pull of a 50mg chip would be, right? Even quite a few of them. Sure, there'd be a little pull, but I'm pretty sure Alpha Centauri would effect them more.
    • Yes ... but it took millions of years for something as massive as the sun to condense. These craft will have be lighter and have somewhat less gravity than the cloud of gas that gave birth to the Sun. By the time they form a compact ball, it's even possible that the US debt limit will have been raised.

  • Gee, I wonder what the capabilities of a [paint] chip-sized spacecraft [lmgtfy.com] might be...

  • Sure, saying those wafers are useless is premature, however, what about common-sized satellites and space probes?

    Instead of building yet another mars rover, NASA should have used what it had and just build ten more Mars Exploration Rovers instead of one extremely expensive, completely new rover - with a whole new set of technical issues. All they would have had to do would be to build a new modular spacecraft to carry them with in a Delta IV or Atlas V - because the Delta II is no longer available.

    Sam
    • by m50d (797211)

      Instead of building yet another mars rover, NASA should have used what it had and just build ten more Mars Exploration Rovers instead of one extremely expensive, completely new rover - with a whole new set of technical issues.

      There are new technical issues because it's new tech. Just think for a moment about how much better digital cameras have gotten over the past 10 years. Sure, we could build 10 more MERs, but we'll get a lot more science value out of one new rover.

      • by tp1024 (2409684)
        Nobody stops you from upgrading some parts while they are still on the ground - but a lot of the mechanical parts, the transfer stage, landing etc. won't need to be redeveloped, and even the upgraded parts will be easier to implement. You could also think about using modularized instruments that you can change depending on the needs of the mission.

        Btw. rather than improved cameras, a better computer would do a whole lot more to improve the science output of the mars rovers, because it would enable a lot
  • by Yaur (1069446) on Friday July 29, 2011 @02:13PM (#36924646)
    how does a chip sized deep space probe transmit anything useful back to earth?
  • by Translation Error (1176675) on Friday July 29, 2011 @02:52PM (#36925296)
    It's in interesting idea, but I can't see it ending in any way other than the whole lot of them being swallowed by a small dog.
  • Someday we'll send out seeds all over the universe (if we don't extinguish ourselves first). Those that evolve from our seeds will think us GODS.

    Isn't that cool!

  • It is probably impossible to thermally isolate and heat such a small spacecraft, since the ratio of surface area to volume is horribly large. So these things will be at a temperature of 3K, unless they are in sunlight.
    I don't think that any battery will work for this, since there are no chemical reactions at these temperatures. They can run on solar cells when in sunlight, but when they are not in sunlight they will be dead and useless.
  • Novel by the name The Invincible - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invincible [wikipedia.org] . Blows my mind how much modern and "future" science is guided by the vision of sci-fi writers of old. Have we had any original ideas in the last decade?!
  • can eat just one?

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