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Apr 20,2007
Swarms of dust-sized particles would explore planets
by Bend Weekly News Sources

En­gi­neers are de­sign­ing a new breed of plan­e­tary ex­plor­ers: ti­ny, shape-shift­ing de­vices that ride the wind like dust par­t­i­cles and al­so to com­mu­ni­cate, fly in for­ma­tion and take sci­en­tif­ic mea­sure­ments.

The specks might even be the first ex­plor­ers from Earth to vis­it plan­ets out­side our so­lar sys­tem, the de­sign­ers claim.

A “smart” dust par­t­i­cle would con­sist of a com­put­er chip about a millimeter wide en­cased in a pol­y­mer ma­te­ri­al that wrin­kles or smooth’s out when elec­tri­cal­ly ac­ti­vat­ed. Wrinkl­ing the sur­face would in­crease air drag on the par­t­i­cle, mak­ing it float high­er. Smooth­ing would cause it to sink.

Swarms of so-called nano-nauts might be the first ex­plor­ers from Earth on plan­e­tary sys­tems out­side our own, re­search­ers say. De­sign­ers of the par­t­i­cles say they might be de­liv­ered to the al­ien worlds via space­crafts that use ion pro­pu­sion, a pow­er­ing sys­tem that al­lows for slow but steady accelerati­on and ef­fi­cient en­er­gy use. (Im­age cour­te­sy Cal­tech)

Sim­u­la­tions show that by switch­ing be­tween rough and smooth modes, the par­t­i­cles can grad­u­al­ly hop to­wards a tar­get, even in swirling winds, re­search­ers say.

“The con­cept of us­ing smart dust swarms for plan­e­tary ex­plo­ra­tion has been talked about for some time, but this is the first time an­y­one has looked at how it could ac­tu­al­ly be achieved,” said John Bark­er of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow, Scot­land. He de­scribed pos­si­ble ap­pli­ca­tions of smart dust at the U.K. Roy­al As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety’s na­tion­al meet­ing in Pres­ton, U.K. on April 18.

“Com­puter chips of the size and soph­ist­ica­tion needed to make a smart dust par­t­i­cle now ex­ist,” Barker said. “We are look­ing through the range of pol­y­mers avail­a­ble to find one that matches our re­quire­ments for high defor­ma­tion us­ing min­i­mal volt­ages.” 

The specks would use wire­less net­work­ing to com­mu­ni­cate and form swarms; “we en­vis­age that most of the par­t­i­cles can on­ly talk to their near­est neighbors but a few can com­mu­ni­cate at much long­er dis­tances,” Bark­er added. “In our sim­u­la­tions we’ve shown that a swarm of 50 smart dust par­t­i­cles can organize them­selves in­to a star for­ma­tion, even in tur­bu­lent wind.” The abil­i­ty to fly in for­ma­tion would enable the chips to pro­cess in­form­a­tion col­lect­ively and beam sig­nals back to an or­bit­ing space­craft, he pre­dic­ted.

To be use­ful, the par­t­i­cles would need to car­ry sen­sors. Cur­rent chem­i­cal sen­sors tend to be rath­er large for the sand-grain sized par­t­i­cles that could be car­ried by the thin Mar­tian at­mos­phere, Bark­er said. Ve­nus’s at­mos­phere, on the oth­er hand, is much thicker and could car­ry sen­sors up to a few centimeters in size, so these could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly be used there now.

Mean­while, “miniaturization is com­ing on rapid­ly,” Bark­er not­ed. Chips avail­a­ble by 2020 will have com­po­nents just a few nanometers (mil­lionths of a mil­li­me­ter) across, so that smart par­t­i­cles would be­have more like large mo­le­cules than dust grains, he ar­gued. These would-be ex­plor­ers are be­ing dubbed nano-nauts.

Bark­er’s re­search group at Glas­gow thinks it will be some years be­fore smart dust is ready to launch in­to space, he said. “We are still at an ear­ly stage, work­ing on sim­u­la­tions and com­po­nents. We have a lot of ob­sta­cles to over­come be­fore we are even ready to phys­i­cal­ly test our de­signs. How­ev­er, the po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions of smart dust for space ex­plo­ra­tion are very ex­cit­ing. Our first close-up stud­ies of extra-so­lar plan­ets could come from a smart dust swarm de­liv­ered to anoth­er so­lar sys­tem.”

Courtesy Royal Astronomical Society
and World Science staff

1640 times read

Related news
Surprises in comet dust by World Science posted on Dec 15,2006

Particle smasher may reveal extra dimensions by World-Science posted on Feb 08,2008

'King' of star explosions seen by Bend_Weekly_News_Sources posted on May 11,2007

Alien cells in rain? Study revisits bizarre theory by World-Science posted on Feb 01,2008

Cosmic mystery 'solved' after decades by Bend_Weekly_News_Sources posted on Nov 16,2007

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