London, Feb 6 (ANI): A team of mechanical engineers has designed a 1-centimetre-square spacecraft that could give an early warning of dangerous space storms well before a conventional craft can.
According to a report in New Scientist, the craft, which is 25 micrometres thick and weighs less than 7.5 milligrams, has been designed by Mason Peck, a mechanical engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and his colleague Justin Atchison.
The craft, which is called "smart dust", is modelled on the dust particles that orbit the sun and are propelled by the photons streaming out from the sun.
This solar radiation pressure would have a negligible effect on normal-sized spacecraft but is significant at the millimetre scale.
The grooved edges of the "spacecraft-on-a chip" deflect incoming photons in such a way as to ensure it always faces the sun.
The craft's miniature size would let it hitch a ride into space on the back of another satellite mission headed for the Lagrange point between the Earth and the sun.
The chips are essentially small solar panels with a radio antenna, and could act as a solar wind sensor.
The team envisages sending a whole swarm of these "smart dust" chips to the Lagrange point, where they would monitor the strength of the solar wind.
They would also warn of any oncoming gusts of charged particles that could disrupt communications and electronic systems on Earth.
After the tiny craft has been dropped off at the Lagrange point, the effect of solar radiation moves it closer to the sun.
According to Peck, this could give an extra 13 minutes' notice of a storm compared with larger solar monitoring craft such as NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer.
They can edge closer to the sun than a larger craft monitoring solar activity, buying an extra 13 minutes
The prototype is in the final stages of development, and in the next few months will undergo tests at the terrestrial testbed at Cornell to examine its communication capabilities and durability.
At least one chip capable of sending back temperature data will be launched later this year.
"At this stage, we're just hoping to demonstrate that a spacecraft the size of a fingernail is feasible," Peck said. (ANI)