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"Smart Dust" to Explore Planets

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 7 years ago | from the new-but-not dept.

Space 85

Ollabelle writes "The BBC is reporting how tiny chips with flexible skins could be used to glide through a planet's atmosphere in swarms to gather data and report back. 'The idea of using millimetre-sized devices to explore far-flung locations is nothing new, but Dr Barker and his colleagues are starting to look in detail at how it might be achieved. The professor at Glasgow's Nanoelectronics Research Centre told delegates at the Royal Astronomical Society gathering that computer chips of the size and sophistication required to meet the challenge already existed.'"

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Really, who buys Apple? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788581)

Not I ! Nope.

Re:Really, who buys Apple? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788905)

We're gonna rape your pretty white ass. Signed, The Niggers

Goo (4, Insightful)

Ajehals (947354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788635)

...tiny chips with flexible skins could be used to glide through a planet's atmosphere in swarms to gather data and report back...

Replace "gather data" with "decimate indigenous life" and "report back" with "multiply exponentially", and you have either a classic horror movie or an Iain Banks novel.

Actually its quite scary either way... grey goo anyone?

Re:Goo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788797)

Actually its quite scary either way... grey goo anyone?

I'd be a bit more worried about the dream topping, but at least that's a bit tastier.

Re:Goo (3, Insightful)

TheLazySci-FiAuthor (1089561) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788987)

I can easily replace "decimate indigenous life" with "aid indigenous life" and "multiply exponentially" with "respect nature" and suddenly we have nano-environmentalists.

Do we still have a problem if the goo is green?

Your concerns are valid in general, but this does not strike me as persuasive argument for this particular technological instance.

Re:Goo (1)

Ajehals (947354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789619)

Oops, t'was intended mainly as humour however, your replacements would presumably be mutually exclusive, surely respecting nature would rule out aiding anyone. Although I suppose we could now have a debate about what constitutes nature or natural and we could establish whether a lifeform indigenous to a particular environment can evolve to the point where it is no longer 'part' of that environment but 'above' it. - There has got to be a better way of expressing that....

Re:Goo (1)

TheLazySci-FiAuthor (1089561) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789769)

Oh! I guess my reflexes are too good. Especially the one which jerks my knee ;)

This is a very interesting thing you say, about organisms evolving beyond their environment. This rings true for humanity in it's current state.

One might even look at all land and air-based lifeforms on this planet as having evolved "above" the environment of the ocean. But naturally, all organisms still rely on the ocean for existence.

Humans seem to be the first creature from this planet that may just be able to completely sever the cord with our home ecosystem by creating artificial ones.

If it were up to me, I would find (or build) an earth-sized, earth-like planet and populate it with the current menagerie of genetic stock currently on this planet. I would call it, "museum earth" and this "ecosystem" would be maintained strictly to assure that a form of evolutionary stasis is maintained such that selective pressures are minimized, or eliminated thus assuring that no species goes extinct.

On classic earth, meanwhile, I would just let life continue on as always - complete with spaceborne and earthly extinction level events.

Though, I would still hold a debate as to whether or not we would be overstepping nature by averting an event which would result in the total destruction of our home planet.

Re:Goo (1)

Ajehals (947354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790095)

Humans seem to be the first creature from this planet that may just be able to completely sever the cord with our home ecosystem by creating artificial ones.

Seriously, what's artificial? I assume (If I'm wrong shoot me down, assumption being the mother of all f**k-ups) you are talking about orbital or deep space based habitations in this instance, but I have real difficulty defining artificial. If we are a product of an ecosystem how can we ever introduce something that is not natural? I should point out here that I am not some sort of anti-environmentalist (as in being anti environmentalists rather than anti environment :) but I have difficulty about defining things like natural and nature. The argument I have normally had presented is that we as a species have a massive negative impact on our environment, we destroy other species and modify our environment so drastically that it becomes impossible of supporting other life, we destroy the balance that is nature, therefore our actions are not natural.

However I cant quite see it as being that simple, I agree that we do all of those things, but I don't think there is an inherent or natural balance. (species die out, others replace them and habitats change). Sure we do it more quickly, but we are (after all) a product of the same environment. As a product of that environment (and going back toward this balance thing) we only do things that are in our interest, and within our capabilities. Our interests and capabilities however, are significantly different from other life forms (most animals interests are food, sex and territory, whilst ours are... (oh wait..!) more complex, our relative capabilities as a species are incomparable....

I think that we will eventually see that some of our actions need to be modified significantly to serve our own interests (well if not we may all die and then it will all be rather academic anyway..) and I hope that that occurs in time to prevent too much damage to other species and local ecosystems (if its not too late already) but I do sort of see this as a continuation of a natural process. I guess we could call it TurboDarwinism, and just hope that we evolve into something a little more sensible, and maintain numbers that are sustainable.

If not there is always space...

Re:Goo (1)

TheLazySci-FiAuthor (1089561) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790403)

TurboDarwinism(tm)! Has that slashdot username been taken yet!?

So, I love this argument that nothing is truly unnatural. I subscribe to this notion wholeheartedly.

Just because humanity's technology is destructive does not automatically make it unnatural. After all, we are not yet the most destructive organisms to have lived on this Earth.

As organisms which cause species' extinction go, we are something of a distant second (at least). We need look no further than the ancient cyanobacteria [wikipedia.org] for inspiration on how to really give the environment a swift kick to the head! Our piddly attempts at wrecking the environment are sophomoric at best ;)

When all is said and done I firmly believe that there is nothing supernatural about the universe. Thus, there is nothing which can exist which is unnatural.

A space station is no more unnatural than a beehive...but it's a lot cooler!

Re:Goo (1)

jbengt (874751) | more than 7 years ago | (#18791341)

"Seriously, what's artificial?"

Simple, anything belonging to art or craftmanship - that is, made by man - is artificial.
I'm not arguing that it means unnatural, after all we do speak of "the nature of man".
The use of 'artificial' to mean fake is really only applicable when you're referring to something that is an imitation.

Re:Goo (1)

Ajehals (947354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18791447)

Pedant :) Its all about context.

Re:Goo (1)

melikamp (631205) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789305)

Aye. Ijon Tichy [wikipedia.org] must be turning in his astral grave.

Re:Goo (2, Insightful)

SkWaSH (562395) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790209)

I just finished reading 'Prey' by Michael Crichton. This stuff scares me now. Of course who would ever be stupid enough to make bad decisions in order to meet big deadlines? Nobody ever does that!

Re:Goo (1)

heinousjay (683506) | more than 7 years ago | (#18791097)

Who would ever take Michael Crichton's particular brand of crap seriously? The guy writes in the same vein as L Ron Hubbard.

Re:Goo (1)

Fred_A (10934) | more than 7 years ago | (#18795177)

Except his stuff is usually fun to read and he doesn't start lunatic cults. Well, he does blabber inanities to politicians sometimes apparently, but it's not as bad. At least most of his books remain fun if often silly.

Re:Goo (1)

Rhett's Dad (870139) | more than 7 years ago | (#18797803)

History seems to show that the sci-fi storytellers ultimately turn out to be the most successful future predictors.

Who would ever take H.G. Wells' particular brand of crap about traveling to the moon seriously.

Re:Goo (1)

caffiend2049 (984834) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790255)

Hey...that sounds a lot like how life on Earth started! When are we scheduled to report back, anyway?

Forget horror movies (1)

StrahdVZ (1027852) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790801)

The idea of introducing ANYTHING to another planet's ecosystem just strikes me as, to put it bluntly, utter stupidity and idiocy.

As if it wasn't enough for us to pollute our own planet with tiny particles and change its entire ecosystem, now we want to cover other planets in our technological waste and effect their ecosystems? Regardless of if there is life on these planets or not, the introduction of the pollutant will effect the ecology and function of the planet, eg. the weather system.

Haven't we learned from our own history?? As an Australian who knows our own history of having our ecosystem decimated by introduced influences, this has to be the worst (ecologically) thought out idea I have ever read.

We need some kind of "prime directive" quarantine, to reduce the influence of abject human stupidity on other planets.

Re:Forget horror movies (1)

DerWulf (782458) | more than 7 years ago | (#18798467)

What's the value of leaving planets that are not inhabited by intelligent life untouched? So mars should stay a very boring, very cold rock just for the sake of being natural? If can't go there, explore there, enjoy it we might as well blow it up because at this point it seems we are the only species that can attach value to anything in a meaningful sense.

Re:Goo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18794547)

Replace "gather data" with "decimate indigenous life" and "report back" with "multiply exponentially", and you have ...

...pure awesomeness.

I, for one, would welcome our millimetre-sized, goo-producing overlords.

Re:Goo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18794939)

First proposed in fiction in 1971: http://tinyurl.com/2a52m3 [tinyurl.com]
(fab book, btw)

Re:Goo (1)

cbacba (944071) | more than 7 years ago | (#18801807)

grey goo requires self replication if I recall properly. This sounds like a variant to the notion of crime detection by releasing dust clouds of nantech camera/recorders - go in and vacuum up the crime scene to checkout who done what to whom. (bad english intentional - as in a who done it movie). Such notions bring about the concept of big brother - big time. Whether such things will become plausible remains to be seen. Off-hand, it sort of sounds like BS - the 'let's do it because it's possible' syndrome.

Re:Goo (1)

Ajehals (947354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18805763)

The bonus of this method, presumably, is that anyone at the crime scene who breathed in any of the NAno-CRIme-DEtetor-DUst (NACRIDEDU (R)(TM)(etc)) get a free internal medical exam in HD with 6.1 surround sound.

Re:Goo (1)

cbacba (944071) | more than 7 years ago | (#18806993)

LOL I sorta doubt it's going to be surround sound or even hi-fi.

Then again, what does happen if someone inhales dead nanotech equipment?

Personally, I doubt there's much liklihood of any practical application of this sorta stuff. Assuming you can find any of it, how is there going to be a connection to hookup - and if it's wireless, how's one going to distinguish between this thousand units and that thousand units in the dust pan?

I expect there will be some nanotech success stories eventually, I just don't have much faith that these sorts of things will be among them. I guess it goes along with the notion that there are likely to be better and more cost effective alternatives to most problems.

We can't be content just polluting our own planet? (3, Interesting)

KWTm (808824) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788639)

So, not being satisfied with having our waste strewn across just our own planet, now we're going to introduce the rest of the solar system to our All-Products-Are-Disposable culture? Or are these micro chip/probes going to clean up after themselves and come back to Earth?

Re:We can't be content just polluting our own plan (1)

jdray (645332) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788807)

We'll probably deploy them on Earth first. On the battlefield.

Re:We can't be content just polluting our own plan (1)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790351)

Damn you. I completely agree with you. I was going to post a smart-ass "toner wars anyone?" comment with a link to Wikipedia; but I find, to my complete slack-jawed amazement, that there is no Wikipedia entry for "toner war". There is, which I thought a great touch, a link from "Gray goo" [wikipedia.org] to "Ice-nine" [wikipedia.org] , a relationship which had never occured to me, but no "toner war". Now I'm going to have to write (OK, start) a Wikipedia entry for "toner war". This [wikipedia.org] if you have no idea WTF I'm talking about.

Re:We can't be content just polluting our own plan (1)

jdray (645332) | more than 7 years ago | (#18797207)

Sorry to have scuttled you there. If it helps, your link to the Wikepedia article on Diamond Age has encouraged me to read it. Snowcrash is one of my all time favorite novels, and, oddly enough, I've never read anything else by Stephenson.

Re:We can't be content just polluting our own plan (1)

exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788965)

I don't know if you've noticed but the universe is a pretty big place and solar systems appear to be as common as can be. I'm worried about pollution on Earth, but I think you'll have to work harder than that if you want people to worry about pollution elsewhere in the universe.

Re:We can't be content just polluting our own plan (1)

xeromist (443780) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789311)

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses. Earth is too hard to protect so the environmentalists are getting a head start protecting the rest of the galaxy :D

How did you get modded up (3, Insightful)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789069)

Look, even if we deploy 1 million of these spread out on Mars, I doubt that you would even find one if you looked for 10 years. There is more "pollution" (in terms of weight) that comes in via meteorites over a month, then would be in these million. Don't believe it? Then look closely at the moon and Martian surface. Those holes are not there just to look pretty.

Re:How did you get modded up (1)

Farmer Tim (530755) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789909)

Then look closely at the moon and Martian surface. Those holes are not there just to look pretty.

You realise you just lowered the self esteem of a thousand crater-faced geeks, don't you?

Re:How did you get modded up (2, Insightful)

StrahdVZ (1027852) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790919)

I am sure that is what the Europeans who arrived on Australia and other pacific islands thought... right before they inadvertently introduced smallpox and decimated the populations. Or lets not forget the cats on ships whose kittens became the feral creatures that decimate local wildlife. Even the smallest outside influence can affect the function of a balanced system. Humans are a stupid people and we have a history of doing stupid things.

Re:How did you get modded up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18791145)

I think the stupidest introduction in Australian history would have had to have been Cane Toads. 100 of them were introduced in 1935 for the purpose of eating the native Cane Beetles. Not only did they have absolutely no effect as they they could not catch the cane beetles - the beetles a) live too high and b) breed during the wrong season - but they are creeping across our country every year, affecting local wildlife but also they have no natural predator in our country.



http://www.fdrproject.org/pages/toads.htm [fdrproject.org]

Re:How did you get modded up (1)

sjwaste (780063) | more than 7 years ago | (#18795855)

Then release the cane snake, followed by the cane gorilla. In the winter, the gorillas will just freeze to death.

Re:How did you get modded up (2, Insightful)

drsquare (530038) | more than 7 years ago | (#18791189)

Planets are not balanced systems, they're lifeless hellholes. A few chips falling on them won't hurt.

Re:How did you get modded up (1)

gstoddart (321705) | more than 7 years ago | (#18802727)

Planets are not balanced systems, they're lifeless hellholes.

Earth is a planet, is it a lifeless hellhole? Or are you merely implying that some subset of all planets might be lifeless hellholes? All planets not Earth are lifeless hellholes? All planets that are lifeless hellholes are, well, lifeless hellholes, except the ones that aren't?

The categorical statement is fun, and sounds cool, but is generally not worth a damn and doesn't really contribute anything to the conversation.

We don't know to what extent life is present on other planets. So we can't make any such broad statements about what other planets are like -- let alone all of them.

Cheers

Yes, and that is why they are sterilized (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 7 years ago | (#18792371)

Look, everything that NASA launches out of gravity well is sterile. Nothing left to grow. That includes ALL of our spacecrafts. Is it possible that something has survived? Possibly. But then it has to survive space and then the planets. The chance are very unlikely. Heck, we even crashed Galileo into Jupiter to avoid the chance that it would strike Europa or one of the other planets. I am not worried about this. Well, at least not from NASA.

This project is doomed (4, Funny)

Timesprout (579035) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788651)

When they get to the Dyson planet in the Hoover nebula.

Re:This project is doomed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788851)

When they get to the Dyson planet in the Hoover nebula

+1 funny! that's one spot in the universe that really sucks!

ATTN: SWITCHEURS! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788893)

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If you think Firefox is a decent Mac application, GTFO.
If you're still looking for the "maximize" button, GTFO.
If the name "Clarus" means nothing to you, GTFO.
 
Bandwagon jumpers are not welcome among real [imageshack.us] Mac [imageshack.us] users [imageshack.us] . Keep your filthy, beige [imageshack.us] PC fingers to yourself.

one wonders... (1)

notgm (1069012) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788705)

if we as a species are discussing this idea in earnest, why would little green men with technology advanced enough to fly here to submit us to probes? that this exists as a concept pretty quickly kills the idea that 'if we've been visited, we'd know about it.'

Expensive Proposition (2)

ShorePiper82 (1027534) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788719)

Seems like a very costly operation to me. These chips could be used to report back on data on a calm atmosphere and produce recurring feedback if their signal strength is significant enough. The other case (and more costly operation is) where they are instantly destroyed by say 800mph gas / electricity storms and the best feedback you could hope for is possibly wind sweep pattern / storm strength (useful in its own right but the chips would probably be damaged before suitable data is collected).

Already exist? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788741)

What does "...computer chips of the size and sophistication required to meet the challenge already existed." mean? Does this mean that similar projects exist here, on earth? Where would those be used (military)? The potential to spread "smart dust" in your home, or yard, or around downtown DC or Baghdad is quite scary....

Re:Already exist? (1)

Farmer Tim (530755) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790059)

The potential to spread "smart dust" in your home, or yard, or around downtown DC or Baghdad is quite scary....

Fortunately there's sufficient "dumb dust" around that the smart variety will be forced into small, unpopular cliques, where it will spend most of it's time playing RPGs and discussing the relative merits of Star Trek versus Firefly.

Re:Already exist? (1)

Patrik_AKA_RedX (624423) | more than 7 years ago | (#18793981)

It means we can make chips that can monitor you and transmit their findings that are so tiny you can't see them with the naked eye. So when you find hundreds of batteries, seemingly connected to thin air, in your house, you might be being monitored.

Pshhh... (1)

Mockylock (1087585) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788753)

Like this is new news. Pixies have been doing this for years. Do you think they sprinkle it just to make you fly? C'mon. They're merely keeping an eye on you.

Just be careful the next time you think you see a powdery substance on your ass, the patriot act isn't going to help you.

oblig. (1)

cosmocain (1060326) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788757)

at the physicists home:

"honey, where's my research project?" whilst hearing the reliably and heart-warming sound of a hoover doing its best.

argh. i didn't really write that, did i?
/away being ashamed of myself.

whew, I thought you were going to say... (1)

blurker (1007141) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789027)

I for one welcome our tiny dust-like robot overlords!

Re:whew, I thought you were going to say... (2, Funny)

Farmer Tim (530755) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790103)

Imagine a Beowulf cloud of these...

One can't help but wonder (1)

RM6f9 (825298) | more than 7 years ago | (#18788837)

How would earth/humanity respond to such a nano-invasion? I find myself chuckling at the idea of a full-on test being run on the closest earth-like planet (earth, oddly enough!) with a sufficiently large enough group of folks who didn't get whatever warnings were published in advance to demonstrate exactly how paranoid we (as a species) generally are...

Re:One can't help but wonder (1)

Skrekkur (739061) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789593)

Well, we wouldn't necessarily know if we had been "nano-invaded". The sensors could even be disguised as small bugs with sufficient technology.
Hmm always thought these ants where too clever... runs out on an ant-hunt

Re:One can't help but wonder (1)

Torvaun (1040898) | more than 7 years ago | (#18793841)

If you haven't gathered the information, how do you know how to camouflage the sensors? And if the sensors aren't camouflaged, how are you going to keep the 'War of the Worlds' (panic associated with original radio broadcast) from happening. Do we just guess that 'planet x' probably has cockroaches?

#irc.7rooltalk.com (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18788979)

stagnant. As Linux of various bSD up today! IF you hand...don't

look on the bright side (1)

blurker (1007141) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789063)

At least our dust is getting smarter...

Micro-rovers (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789177)

On a related note, I wonder why JPL keeps focusing on a few big Mars rovers instead of lots of small ones. Smaller rovers, roughly Sojourner-sized, could do basic investigation of curious features. Having lots of small rovers would allow NASA to explore more risky places, like the alleged newly-discovered caves, the "ice trees", and Vallis Marineris (spell?). Right now they keep finding flat, safe spots because the rovers are nearly a billion dollars each. If you send a dozen small rovers instead, then you don't have the all-or-nothing pressure to be conservative. I think "wide" searchers are just as useful as detailed ones. It may also allow better decisions about where to later send the big, detail-oriented rovers.

Re:Micro-rovers (2, Informative)

Bozdune (68800) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789543)

I wonder why JPL keeps focusing on a few big Mars rovers instead of lots of small ones.

Maybe because it costs so damn much to get a payload to Mars, you might as well send a payload that's going to pay back. Sojourner was only designed to last 7 days; and even after 83 days it had only traveled 100 meters. Compared to what the big rovers have accomplished, Sojourner was a joke.

You need a big vehicle with big wheels or tracks and a complex suspension system to navigate around a rock-strewn plain, which by the way seems to pretty much describe the entire planet. A skateboard with a solar panel on top won't get very far.

   

Re:Micro-rovers (2, Interesting)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789701)

Maybe because it costs so damn much to get a payload to Mars, you might as well send a payload that's going to pay back.

Why would 12 microrovers cost more than one big rover? (The next one under preparation is much bigger than even Spirit.)

Sojourner was only designed to last 7 days; and even after 83 days it had only traveled 100 meters.


I meant Sojourner-sized, not Sojourner technology. Sojourner relied on a separate lander to send messages back, and thus couldn't wonder far. We don't need that. I am thinking that microprobes could do without a contact spectrometer. Use only remote-sensing spectrometers. That way more weight can be devoted to orbiter communications.

You need a big vehicle with big wheels or tracks and a complex suspension system to navigate around a rock-strewn plain


Only if you want to go relatively fast and fear fatal mistakes. If a microrover gets stuck or scratched, it gets stuck or scratched. The slowness of Spirit and Oppy is largey due to risk aversion.

I am not against larger rovers, only saying we need both types. One large rover and a batch of 12 micro-rovers would probably be more scientifically useful than 2 big rovers because a bunch can survey more diverse areas of Mars.

Re:Micro-rovers (1)

Oktober Sunset (838224) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790515)

first off 12 little rovers, unless you plan on landing them all one one place, need 12 different rides, and 12 different landings, with 12 different nerd brigades to land them, and then when they land, all can really do do is take pretty pictures, they don't carry enough gear to analyse stuff properly, which as nice as the pics are for giving space obsessed nerds on /. a big boner, don't really do much to further the hunt for water, or tell us much about the Martian environment's chemistry, you need to be able to analyse the rocks and soil for composition and stuff to see what it's made of, which need chunky equipment inside the rovers. If one of those runty little rovers sees something interesting, you would need to follow it up with a big rover, to analyse it properly. What would be better would be to send some sort of aircraft that can fly about and gather visual data, 1 aircraft could gather as much as a whole brigade of runt rovers in a fraction of the size, then you could send in chunky rovers to the most promising locations to analyse stuff properly.

Re:Micro-rovers (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790697)

12 different landings, with 12 different nerd brigades to land them

I don't see why this would be a significant cost. Once you do a few you get more efficient at it anyhow. It's called "economy of scale".

and then when they land, all can really do do is take pretty pictures, they don't carry enough gear to analyse stuff properly

They would have remote spectrometers. True, this is not nearly as good as contact spectrometers, but the idea is to take a general survey of some of the odder features of Mars, perhaps features that are in an area too high-risk for a fully loaded rover.

If one of those runty little rovers sees something interesting, you would need to follow it up with a big rover, to analyse it properly.

So? Better than nearly blind-landing a billion-dollar rover, which is what they do now. Spirit planners: "Hmmm, Gusev Crater looks like it *may* be an ancient flood plane. Lets go see".

What would be better would be to send some sort of aircraft that can fly about and gather visual data, 1 aircraft could gather as much as a whole brigade of runt rovers in a fraction of the size

Yes indeed, but such technology is new and untested. Rovers are a tested technology. It is hard to get enough power to such a plane so far. If its solar-powered, it has to stay around the equator, and nuclear residual technology is heavy.
     

Re:Micro-rovers (1)

iamlucky13 (795185) | more than 7 years ago | (#18805665)

They've definitely considered it, but the costs don't scale as well as you might think, and the preference has almost always been increased capability rather than increased coverage.

Remember economies of scale can be applied to increasing mass, not just increasing quantities. For one launch, one landing, one chassis you can carry more instruments. Not just more, but more complex. The MER's each carry a stereo high res camera, stereo navigation camera, 2 stereo hazard cameras, microscopic imager, mossbauer spectrometer, X-ray spectrometer, thermal emissions spectrometer, rock abrasion tool, and the ability to gather additional data using many of the above tools or even parts of the rover itself (soil consistency by observing clumping on the wheels, weather patterns with the cameras, dust and color calibration targets, etc). Compared to a tiny remote like Sojourner, which had a two small cameras and a smaller X-ray spectrometer and could only reach about a dozen rocks total, each of the $410 million MER's can do far more than $280 million Sojourner Pathfinder.

Don't forget that Sojourner was not self-sufficient. It relied on Pathfinder to relay all of its data and commands. They saved a little bit of mass by keeping a lot of the heavier components on the immobile Pathfinder.

The Mars Science Laboratory will blow them all away for capability. It's science payload at 65 kg will represent over 8% of it's weight, compared to 5 kg out 185 for the MER's (3%), and I don't know what for the tiny 11 kg Sojourner. Part of the much higher cost goes towards developing the currently non-existant precision landing techniques that will let NASA place it in driving range of specific targets of interest. Part also goes towards expanding its range of acceptable landing zones by using an RTG instead of solar and computer-controlled descent rockets instead of airbags. It will have basically all the science instruments of the MER's but also include a higher resolution color microscope, zoom on the pan cam with video capability (NASA is dying to study those dust devils MER's discovered in more detail), a really sweet laser chemical analyzer, a complete weather science station, and a mack-daddy onboard sample analysis chamber for in depth experiments on both gas and soil/rock samples.

So for 5 times the cost (about $2 billion), the MSL carries 13 times the mass in tools with perhaps as much as 10 times the range as an MER.

Now this brings up the biggest drawback of the this approach: They'll only have one. They can't afford any upside down accelerometers, unit conversion errors, or phantom engine cutoff signals. I believe the main reason they decided to expand the MER program to 2 rovers was redundancy in the face of the recent loss of the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter. There was an added bonus that the areas the two landed in are quite different geologically. However, when it comes down to the decision time, the only way for NASA to get the instruments they want on the ground for the next mission with the money they have is a single, big mission.

In fact, all the previous missions have effectively served as scouts for the follow up missions. The design of the MSL is a result of what NASA learned from the MRO, MGS, MER's, Pathfinder, and Odyssey.

I can't wait to see what we'll learn from this big boy.

Re:Micro-rovers (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 7 years ago | (#18815971)

Don't forget that Sojourner was not self-sufficient.

I've covered that already in a nearby reply. It is the *size* I was considering, not the technology of Sojourner.

Remember economies of scale can be applied to increasing mass, not just increasing quantities.

But multi-spot coverage is also good. I am proposing using both, but let the small ones survey first. Further, there are some very curious spots on Mars that are too risky for a regular rover. Remember, part of the benefit of my proposal is to be able to explore riskier spots without the fear of embarassment. It is not just about how many intruments one can pack onboard. Diversity of location is just as important as diversity of instruments.
               

Re:Micro-rovers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18818977)

All granted, but NASA just doesn't have the resources to do that broad of coverage. Instead they taking the risk of loss and embarressment for the capabilities of the MSL.

The MER's answered a lot of questions, but they raised just as many. More simple rovers are less likely to answer those as a single, large, ultra-capable one.

It's risky yes, but no more so than the Cassini-Hguyens mission, and it's balanced by lower risk, more targeted missions like the Phoenix polar lander. When I consider the idea of a simple human error killing a $1.5-2 billion mission, I too am tempted to think they should simplify the design and send two or three, but having looked at the relative capabilities that the MSL brings, it's hard to call their gamble foolish.

By the way, the precision landing system of the MSL will theoretically allow it to land within driving range of a particular target of interest, and also in riskier areas than the MER could. Additionally, it's larger size means it can pass larger obstacles up to 2.5 feet high (MER's less than half that), and its nuclear powered RTG means it is not restricted to the equatorial regions. So in its own way, the MSL improves access to risky areas. In fact, NASA my impression is NASA is eager to develop the precision landing technique for a large payload regardless of whether MSL or something else is on board. It will probably be scaled down and used in future lander missions.

Lastly, I should point out that the discussion is moot until at least the 2011 launch window. The MSL is being built right now.

Poor Martians (3, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789303)

First we crash probes into their neighborhoods, then we put skid-marks all over the place with our wheel-dragging rovers, now we aggravate their allergies.

Ah-choo (1)

Piedramente (1063240) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789559)

Now we just have to be careful we don't inhale the experiment.

battery (2, Interesting)

dominious (1077089) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789793)

I wonder if the demand for collecting and distributing data in real time would be feasible with such small
batteries. Battery lifetime is a challenge itself for smart dust, what happens when the application requires
data to be transmitted all the time in order to monitor changes constatly, how long would the nodes last? In
battlefields there's no need to transmit data unless something happens, like an explosion will trigger an event.

Anyhow, this is a great idea and makes a very good project!

Am I the only one concerned... (1)

Crazyscottie (947072) | more than 7 years ago | (#18789803)

... about this technology falling into the wrong hands? Like, say, those of the United States government? If you thought the NSA telecommunications spying was bad, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Re:Am I the only one concerned... (1)

ajlitt (19055) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790737)

Or like say, Keith Richards.

Re:Am I the only one concerned... (1)

AP31R0N (723649) | more than 7 years ago | (#18796125)

Is there a "Mod Paranoid" option?

Re:Am I the only one concerned... (1)

lemarsu (316337) | more than 7 years ago | (#18911011)

Bin Laden: Strange, there is a lot more dust nowadays...

NSA: Great, I can hear them!

maS8e (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18790681)

gJOIN THE GNNA!!

Wonder if UC Berkeley has anything to say... (1)

toplus (1085237) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790703)

Since this "Smart Dust" concept was introduced [berkeley.edu] in 2001 by UC Berkeley, I'm waiting for them so say something. It has been a pretty popular term over the past years in the Wireless Sensor Network community, but always referred to the Berkeley work. However in the article they do not mention anything. Or maybe the journalist skipped that part?

Attribution?! (2, Interesting)

tcmoore4 (1090237) | more than 7 years ago | (#18790827)

Kris Pister, an EECS professor in MEMS at Berkeley, coined the term "Smart Dust" and has done a ton of work on it. I remember him mentioning the goals of the project in a class in 1999, and he touched upon all the accomplishments mentioned in the article, most of which were achieved. If you search on "Smart Dust" in Google, his research project site is the first that comes up. So how can their be no mention of Pister, his research, his company "Dust Networks", or Berkeley in the entire article? http://robotics.eecs.berkeley.edu/~pister/SmartDus t/ [berkeley.edu] Just wondering.

Re:Attribution?! (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18795379)

"The Invincible", a 1960's novel by noted SF author Stanislaw Lem explores on something suprisingly similar, although self-organizing arrays of micro-robots are a result of natural cyber-evolution there, in fact they "devolved" from highly advanced macro robots which survived the end of a distant civilization due to a supernova's explosion.

Astrochickens (1)

UrktheTurk (1026122) | more than 7 years ago | (#18791071)

... now with Astrofleas.

Prior Art (1)

Aging_Newbie (16932) | more than 7 years ago | (#18791109)

I seem to remember on SciFi channel some programs in which streaks were found in sunlight with a camera in a shadow. Now, If the aliens were using nanoparticles to research earth, the data presented would have a very good explanation = the aliens were researching earth with dust particles. The fact that they appeared to move in intelligent ways is further evidence. So, don't try to patent these nano explorers because there is prior art in UFO videos.

How about cubesats (1)

mpn14tech (716482) | more than 7 years ago | (#18792899)

I have often wondered about sending a bunch of cubesats out to explore the solar system.
Even if all they carried was a simple camera we could collect lots of interesting data.
Plus it may give us a better idea of where to send the more expensive probes

Dorothy Xtreme (1)

dgbrownnt (1012901) | more than 7 years ago | (#18793917)

I remember this movie from when it was called Twister... (but I don't remember the space part)

True "Smart Dust"..... (1)

IHC Navistar (967161) | more than 7 years ago | (#18794443)

Truly "Smart Dust" would clean itself out of my computer case and rifle cabinet the moment it saw the irritated look on my face. At the very least, they should make it able to say "Gesundheit!" after someone sneezed from inhaling a cloud of it.

However, there is a Sexual Harassment liability that comes with it:

Some FemiNazi would most definitely complain the moment she finds out a female astronaut was sent out to collect it after the data collection was complete.

Nano-cluelessness strikes again. (1)

Ancient_Hacker (751168) | more than 7 years ago | (#18796837)

Anything nano must be possible, and good. At least that's the buzz.

But, hmmm, funny how you only hear this kind of buzz from people that have not a clue about the basic laws of scale, as related to surface area versus volume, wavelengths of radio and light, and surface tension.

In a nutshell, start with a cell-phone with camera, and ponder what happens as you shrink it by a factor of ten, again and again. Surmise what happens to it's audio and video sensor resolutions, the efficiency of xmitting antennas, the power available, and it's tendency to get washed away by precipitation.

Als, consider, it's just slightly possible that Michael Chricton is totally full of s**t. (Swarm)

Re:Nano-cluelessness strikes again. (1)

Tea4Phage (1089567) | more than 7 years ago | (#18806503)

Right, but you seem to be assuming that these devices are all a) submicroscopic and b) incapable of cooperating to form larger structures. Visualize a group of bacterial-sized machines that can come together to form an antenna.

Re:Nano-cluelessness strikes again. (1)

Ancient_Hacker (751168) | more than 7 years ago | (#18812701)

Well, there are two basic problems:

cart-before the horse:

In order for those tiny things to gather, they'd have to, individually, be able to sense, navigate, communicate, and move. You have to explain that basic stage first before you can assume they can do the job once aggregated.

Basic problem:

As far as I know, we can't build devices of convenient sizes and with unlimited funds to sense, navigate, communicate, move, and aggregate into any useful function. It's an awfully huge leap of faith to just ASSUME the devices can be built on a microscopic size, given that we can't do it on a convenient scale.

Re:Nano-cluelessness strikes again. (1)

Tea4Phage (1089567) | more than 7 years ago | (#18812965)

Cart before the horse: They do need to be individually mobile and able to sync up their actions with one another to produce meaningful behavior, yes. But there are already microscopic systems that work together in aggregate despite individually being incapable of conceiving of the tasks to which the gestalt gets put. You're talking to one, and unless you happen to be a particularly insightful chatterbot, you are one. No one cell can comprehend or meaningfully model an organism, but the rules that govern their macroscale behavior don't require them to. The processes that led to such coordinated emergent behavior are understandable, and some of it is very well-understood. We don't need to make a bunch of wholly-independent nanites; interoperability is the point. Basic problem: "We can't build devices of convenient sizes and with unlimited funds" Nanotechnology is a new engineering discipline, but it's already an industry. Nobody has unlimited funds to work with, and you haven't shown me that unlimited funds are necessary here. As far as size goes, I saw an article a while back about a fully-functional guitar visible (and playable) with an electron microscope. That's a toy, or at best proof-of-concept, but the field has been making quite a bit of progress since then (I believe it was in 2002 or so). The problems I see are ones of our current infrastructure and knowledge not being up to the task yet--nothing insurmountable or fundamental.

Re:Nano-cluelessness strikes again. (1)

Ancient_Hacker (751168) | more than 7 years ago | (#18815019)

Using biology as an example is a cop-out, unless you're willing to concede that Nanotechnology is just another name for "animal husbandry".

>Nanotechnology is a new engineering discipline.

No, it's been around for 20 years.

>but it's already an industry.

No, it's a buzz-word-- an industry would be building something. Nanotech has burnt up over $400 million in capital, with no tangible results other than sunscreen.

>-nothing insurmountable or fundamental.

Try reading up about the issue of scaling. About 97% of what's written about nanotech completely ignores basic physical laws.

Re:Nano-cluelessness strikes again. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18837003)

>Using biology as an example is a cop-out, unless >you're willing to concede that Nanotechnology is just >another name for "animal husbandry".

I'm sorry, but it's *not* a copout. Biology demonstrates that creating useful gestalt devices emergent from smaller-scale chemical interactions is possible. Nanotechnology is a highly interdisciplinary field drawing on numerous disparate bodies of knowledge. It's very complex stuff, and much of it was at the theoretical forefront of its field before a strong movement towards synthesizing these various theories began. Even now, the numerous fields that can reasonably use the term are often quite distinct.

Nevertheless, this stuff isn't just wishy unobtanium. There's solid theoretical underpinnings to the idea.

>No, it's been around for 20 years.

By what standard do you make that claim? The date "Engines of Creation" by Drexler hit shelves? Come on.

>No, it's a buzz-word-- an industry would be >building something. Nanotech has burnt up over $400 >million in capital, with no tangible results other >than sunscreen.

If you don't bother to look, sure. I suppose if you define "results" as "crap consumer products I can spend way too much on at SHarper Image" then sure, there hasn't been much.

I mean, is rocketry crap? About the only thing a modern consumer ever sees from that whole field is fireworks and toys.

>Try reading up about the issue of scaling. About >97% of what's written about nanotech completely >ignores basic physical laws.

I heard you the first time. Try reading up on emergence.
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