Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
It is the year 2217. The mining vessel Belvedere approaches a large, rocky body in the outer Solar System. The object is dark in color, barely visible against the inky blackness of space. It has every appearance of being a carbonaceous asteroid, no doubt rich in volatiles. It may even contain that most precious of substances in space: water.
The crew of the Belvedere stand to make a substantial profit, but the science officer reports that she’s getting a lot of strange readings. The asteroid may not be what it seems. “I recommend keeping our distance,” she says.
“Pixies” are part of the whole commercialization of space thing that’s going on right now. They’re made by a company called Asteroid Initiatives LLC, and they’re intended for use in asteroid prospecting and, ultimately, asteroid mining.
Basically, pixies are a new kind of space probe. As you might guess from the name, they’re really small. They’re sometimes referred to as femto-spacecraft, though they’re not actually femto-scale (that would make them smaller than atoms).
In terms of size, they’re often compared to credit cards, cell phones, or TV remote controls. In other words, a pixie spacecraft could fit in the palm of your hand.
Pixies may be going on their first mission soon. They’re under consideration to be part of the AIDA mission to the asteroid Didymos and its moon, Didymoon. If approved, a swarm of forty pixies will either surround Didymoon or land on its surface.
Granted, pixies are too small to carry much sensor equipment, but there will be forty of them. That’s forty extra data feeds, forty extra points of view, forty extra perspectives on how Didymoon responds during AIDA’s impact experiments. That’s a lot of additional information without putting any expensive hardware at risk.
The captain of the Belvedere steeples his fingers. He can’t pass up the opportunity to mine such a large carbonaceous asteroid, but if his science officer is right… if there’s any danger….
On the view-screen, the large, rocky object drifts through space. The captain comes to a decision. There’s a way to get more data without putting the ship at risk.
The captain issues the order: “Release the pixies!”