As NASA's space shuttle Endeavour works its way toward the International Space Station today, it's carrying prototypes of fingernail-sized satellites that are expected to someday travel to Saturn.
The shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Monday and is expected to rendezvous with the space station on Wednesday. Endeavour's 16-day mission includes delivering robotic parts and an S-band communications antenna, as well as three small satellites.
The satellites, which look like thin, 1-in. square computer chips, have been in development for three years at Cornell University. Once the shuttle delivers the prototypes, which have been named Sprite, they will be attached to the outside of the space station where they are expected to collect information on solar winds.
The prototypes are expected to work outside the station for "a few years" and then will be returned to Earth and examined to see how they stood up to the harsh conditions of space, according to Cornell.
Within the next decade, researchers are hoping to launch an army of the postage stamp-size satellites and let them travel without any power except the force of natural solar winds.
Cornell scientists are planning to have the satellites travel to Saturn, and as the devices work their way through the planet's atmosphere, they are designed to collect data about chemistry, radiation and particle impacts.
Each satellite prototype is identical expect for a unique transmission signature so scientists can distinguish which chip satellite is communicating with them.
"Their small size allows them to travel like space dust," said Mason Peck, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell. "Blown by solar winds, they can sail to distant locations without fuel ... We're actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up. We want to learn what's the bare minimum we can design for communication from space."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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