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Distributed Probing

A networked approach to exploring the universe
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(+8, -3)
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We currently are exploring our solar system by sending out individually designed probes, each with a particular job in mind. These probes are very expensive, very sensitive items of equipment, especially when trans-atlantic differences in standards of measurement mean that they hurtle into the planet they were supposed to orbit. However, even if they manage to perform their mission, they can all too often transform into silent, waiting monuments useful only for future colonists to bring their children to and marvel at the primitive technology of their ancestors.

Another problem is one of communication over such vast distances. It can take hours for readings to be beamed back to earth, and for responding signals to return from mission control.

What we could do instead is fire off thousands of cheap, robust probes, each with a reduced ability to send distant signals, a digital camera, and equipment capable of triangulating the positions of other probes like itself.

Once interesting corners of the solar system have been seeded with little swarms of these things, their combined, composited readings can be collated and analysed. Larger, more specialised communicator nodes could be sent as support, and to help provide long-distance communication links back home, and to link each swarm of probes with one another.

As we progress further out into the solar system, this network of probes could later provide a workable communications network allowing contact to be maintained whilst vehicles pass behind large planetary bodies for example.

Other uses for a network such as this might be to extend the distributed-telescope idea where multiple radio antennae (such as the MERLIN array in the UK) - only instead of covering an area of a thousand square miles, it would instead cover an area of millions of square miles)

zen_tom, Mar 10 2005

Another money saving space exploration idea Make_20Planetary_20...0Look_20Both_20Ways
[theircompetitor, Mar 10 2005]

Laser Craft http://www.lightcrafttechnologies.com/
[zen_tom, Mar 14 2005]

MERLIN Array http://www.merlin.a.../layman/merlin.html
Actually, a lot less simple than I'd made it out to be [zen_tom, Mar 14 2005]

Interferometry http://www.geocitie...ral/2309/page3.html
Or, using lots of inferior sensors spread-out over a distance to build up a better picture than you might get with a single, superior sensor. [zen_tom, Mar 14 2005, last modified Jan 09 2007]

Foam Hulled Spacecraft Foam_20Hulled_20Spacecraft
Obviously, these probes would be made largely from foam [zen_tom, Mar 14 2005]


       Keep reading this as "disturbed probing".
theircompetitor, Mar 10 2005

       That's an idea for another day....how about Parallel Probing?
zen_tom, Mar 10 2005

       Sounds a bit like smart dust writ large.
bristolz, Mar 10 2005

       NASA wants "smaller, faster, cheaper". They would like this.
wagster, Mar 10 2005

       I was wondering about power for these probes, and it occurred to me that the laser sail concept might be applicable here. There's this idea that a manned ship could be maneuvered around the solar system by a sufficiently strong laser (perhaps based on the moon) instead of having onboard power. Using remote laser propulsion might be much more applicable to probes of this size, and would also serve as a light source which could recharge solar cells to keep the on-board electronics going.
Soterios, Mar 10 2005

       <especially when trans-atlantic differences in standards of measurement mean that they hurtle into the planet they were supposed to orbit.> Yes, that was a very funny incident, a joke well worth the money.   

       But really, what we send out there, *are* the cheapest possible options.   

       And sending a thousand cheap ones means they have to be launched(expensive), they have to be watched (expensive) and controlled(expensive).   

       <a digital camera> There really is nothing to see but distant stars, you have to get up close to take good pictures wich in turn involves a lot of flying and manouvering and is very expensive. Just pictures ar no good anyway you got to get readouts over a much larger spectrum to make it worthwhile. We don't send out probes to get nice holiday shots.   

       I think this idea needs a bit more thinking.
zeno, Mar 13 2005

       //what we send out there, *are* the cheapest possible options//
No, they're just the cheapest implementation of the existing design paradigm.
angel, Mar 14 2005

       [Soterios] I like the idea of laser propulsion, but don't know if you mean in the form of sail, or the hydrogen assisted explosive laser propulsion idea (i'll find a link in a sec) Personally, I think the combination of solar sail and clever orbitry should be able to propel one of these things into suitable usefull areas. I was originally thinking about using a big gun to fire off a team in some kind of scatter pattern that would spread out as it approached its target.   

       If the orbits were worked-out before hand, it should be possible to keep all the devices from a single salvo operating for a number of years (depending on how close to a planet or other body you wanted to send them)   

       Power for electronic components should come from sunlight, gas-cell, or microscopic fusion reactor (joke)- whatever is going to be light, and long-lasting. The point of using many, is that power consumption should be much lower than for a single module.   

       [zeno] on what might be expensive or not. Lanuching yes, and no. If a sackfull were sent up into orbit at the same time and there was already a device up there for flinging them off into space, then per unit, the cost would likely be much cheaper than now. However, we don't have the equipment up in orbit for launching these items yet.   

       They could be made out of foam (see Foam Hulled Space Craft) for an alternate method of fabrication.   

       On the issue of taking good pictures - If you take a thousand pictures of the same planet all at the same time, and analyse the data based on the timing and position of each of the cameras, you *should* be able to create a good composite image, even working in some textural details that might only be possible by a skimming the atmosphere, and scanning as you went.   

       I'll try and find a link to the MERLIN array in the UK for an idea of what a distributed set of simple sensors can do.   

       The idea is not just to replace existing probes with inferior counterparts, but to use our growing abilities for data-analysis to allow us to send out a functioning sensor array that would be able to provide information, as well as establishing a communications system that could provide support for future missions.
zen_tom, Mar 14 2005

       Yeah ok, I see your points. FYI: I was only giving constructive criticism, because i like the idea. Still here's some more. The universe is big really big and even if limited to the solarsystem, that too is pretty big. Covering it, or an area thereof seems to me a much bigger and more expensive task then going after what you want; a certain planet or asteroid. The rest of it is mostly just dull nothingness? What could we hope to accomplish? A planet and a couple of asteroids? seems a gamble and a waist of energy. Looking forward to response.
zeno, Mar 14 2005

       The probes will all need to be accelerated beyond local space by gravitational whips. Our greatest accomplishment would be to have several come to parallel paths, their signal strengths meaningful in combination.
reensure, Mar 15 2005

       Thanks [zeno] - no need for the FYI, but again thanks. You are right about seeding the solar-system being a bit of a chore - however, a loose chain of said devices would be able to provide the distributed support in areas of local interest. I'm imagining a treeish shaped network spreading out from earth, following inter-orbital trajectories and branching out at or near planets, moons or other points of interest. Much like the density of telephone exchanges is normally denser in cities (aggregations of stuff going on - i.e. moons/planets) than they are out in the country.   

       [bristolz] I missed this from earlier, but what is smart dust?
zen_tom, Mar 17 2005

       I don't see anyone mentioning tethers for moving loads in space so I'll bring them to the discussion. They're Robert Forward's thing, go to spacetethers.com to see. I think they're a slick idea, but I'm no rocket scientist..
triumphrider, Mar 17 2005

       I like the idea of sending several probes at once; safety in numbers. but some of them should carry other intraments to measure tempature, radiation, etc.   

       I don't think sending more probes will make communication quicker. If everyone in China shouted at once, will the sound travel faster? strounger, maybe.
the great unknown, Jan 09 2007

       Ooh! I love it when an idea of mine pops up after a long break, many thanks [tgu]!   

       No, communication probably wouldn't be any faster, but, because of the distributed nature of all these objects, you'd no-longer need to have line-of-sight between communicators. For example, were we to place a number of probes in orbit around the moon, missions that venture into the dark side would be able to maintain contact with the earth for the duration of their mission.   

       Gratifyingly, I think (but can't remember examples) recent Mars missions have leveraged the use of an orbiting relay station from a previous mission to boost signals from the surface back to Earth.   

       The idea would be to seed the solar system with lots of these communication nodes, so as to create a communications network (not unlike the cell, or satellite networks we have here on Earth) and for these nodes to have the dual capability of collecting information (in some vague, undecided fashion) about their surroundings. Most excitingly would be the prospect of having a distributed radio telescope with the radius of the solar system which should, given enough processing power, be able to receive and refine images of deep space that we might otherwise find difficult to generate.
zen_tom, Jan 10 2007


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