Shrinking our instrumentation is one of the great hopes for extending spacecraft missions into the Kuiper Belt and beyond. No matter what kind of propulsion system we’re talking about, lower payload weight gets us more bang for the buck. That’s why a new imaging system out of Rochester Institute of Technology catches my eye this morning. It will capture images better than anything we can fly today, working at wavelengths from ultraviolet to mid-infrared.
It also uses a good deal less power, but here’s the real kicker: The new system shrinks the required hardware on a planetary mission from the size of a crate down to a chip no bigger than your thumb. The creation of Zeljko Ignjatovic and team (University of Rochester), the detector uses an analog-to-digital converter at each pixel. “Previous attempts to do this on-pixel conversion have required far too many transistors, leaving too little area to collect light,” said Ignjatovic. “First tests on the chip show that it uses 50 times less power than the industry’s current best, which is especially helpful on deep-space missions where energy is precious.”
Precious indeed. But imagine the benefits of carrying miniaturization still further. Nanotechnology pioneer Robert Freitas has speculated provocatively about space probes shrunk from the bulk of a Galileo or Cassini into a housing no larger than a sewing needle. Launched by the thousands to nearby stars, such probes could turn their enclosed nano-scale assemblers loose on the soil of asteroids or moons in the destination system. They could build a macro-scale research station, working from the molecular level up to create tools for continuing investigation and communicating data back to Earth.
The new sensor out of Rochester is a long way from that kind of miniaturization, but surely the dramatic changes in computing over the past few decades have shown us how potent shrinking our tools — and packing more and more capability into them — can be. And when you’re working with finite payload weight and can insert a new set of tools because they’re smaller than before, you’ve dramatically extended what a given space mission can accomplish. Getting a millimeter-wide needle to Alpha Centauri may not be Star Trek, but it could be how we start.