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As a layman, I like to read about space exploration and come up with ideas.

One of them that I couldn't refute was a sort of firework that would scatter thousands or even millions of self-locating measurement devices in random directions across the sky. This could significantly lower the cost of information -

  • First, the launch would be a cheap operation as the level of precision required would
    be near zero -- some of the devices would be expected not to get anywhere near the
    space.
  • And second, the devices themselves could be rather cheap probably. If we were worried about creating an orbital mess, we could create a kind of bomb that would go off after leaving the vicinity of Earth. (Again the launch of the bomb wouldn't have to be done
    with the level of precision that most of the devices sent into the space require.)

A couple of months ago I read something that reminded me of the idea. I think it was pretty much the same thing, but I can't find it anywhere now. Could you please tell me where I can read about it and explain why this is not being done? (Or why it is being done, if it indeed is.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Forgive me for being so obtuse, could you please explain 'self-locating'? $\endgroup$ – Everyone Sep 6 '13 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ FYI -- launching a bomb to "clean up" space junk just makes more smaller and harder to track junk. The velocity is so high that tiny bits with hardly any mass can still do a lot of damage. $\endgroup$ – user6972 Sep 8 '13 at 17:57
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The text you describe you read reminds me of the Cornell University's page on Sprite Concepts:

Rather than consider the “tremendous mirrors of very thin sheets” they envisioned, we consider solar pressure acting on our extremely small Sprite spacecraft. We have shown that competitive lightness numbers can be achieved by printing the spacecraft onto ultra thin silicon, essentially integrating the sail and the spacecraft.

       KickSat deploying Sprite femtosatellites

       Artist's impression of the KickSat deploying Sprite femtosatellites (source: KickSat on GitHub)

Now, I'm sure a lot of articles were born out of this idea of Sprite femtosatellites (see this answer for their current and near-future use in space), and while it might be a nice idea how to spread these tiny femtosatellites in a wide radius and let them drift through space, the main problem is actually later picking up their communications.

As you can see, such cheap and cheerful devices don't have a large communications antenna, a power source needed, and they actually don't even have any means of propulsion to at least orient themselves to some close by receiver that could act as a relay and send data back to Earth.

So the major show stopper considering your thoughts of sending such tiny satellites to deep space and let them do their science on their own is, we either wouldn't be receiving their data, or we'd need a large number of communication relays in their vicinity and amplify data transmissions. Needless to say, this would end up costing possibly more than having more independent, but larger and more expensive space probes.

But such femtosatellites could still be used, though on a scale that makes sense.

For example: As atmospheric probes to other celestials, and even the Earth itself, with a relatively close proximity communications satellite in range (probably where they would be launched from in the first place) to pick their data transmissions and forward them to wherever they'd be later collated and analyzed.

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  • $\begingroup$ So I tried to read a bunch of the links to find out what they are actually doing with this, and found nothing. What "data" will they be collecting? $\endgroup$ – user6972 Sep 8 '13 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @user6972 - Apparently, for this first trial without being attached to anything - nothing. All there is to it is the test of their communications abilities, or maybe our ability to pick them up. Well, and their ability to produce enough solar power to do that. Remember, they'll have no attitude control, so this might not work out as good as some hope it will. IIRC some amateur radio astronomy telescope array will be also used to help with this, but I forgot which one. :( I also added more links in my other related answer, if it helps. ;) $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Sep 8 '13 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ Would it be possible for the femtosatellites to serve as relays themselves? I mean something like a cloud of femtosatellites buzzing with information, some of which would perhaps get lost. Hypothetically, if there was a femtosatellite belt around the Sun, wouldn't a single large communication satellie suffice to relay the randomized information to Earth? If it makes sense, is this feasible? $\endgroup$ – ymar Nov 9 '13 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @ymar Sun is probably not the best example, because of the huge interference in radio wavelengths that would likely completely blanket any weak transmissions such femtosatellites could manage, so you would likely need a whole fleet of larger, comms relay satellites close by in orbit. Probably possible still, but their size limits the wavelengths used (still effective dipole antenna length would be ~ 1/5 the wavelength) so any comms would be short-range in line of sight. But less violent celestials would likely be a better target for such swarms of femtosatellites as in situ measuring devices. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Nov 9 '13 at 21:04

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