Their simulations estimated that a 6-centimeter plate could hold 10 milligrams of cargo into the atmosphere under natural sunlight. Ten milligrams might not sound like a lot. A drop of water weighs five times. But engineering advances have reduced silicon chips to much smaller dust-sized sensors. These ‘smart dust’ systems can fit a power source, wireless communication, and sensor data collection in the form of cubes Just across a millimeter. “Researchers can do a lot when you give them cubic millimeters of silicon,” says Bargattin. “And a cubic millimeter of silicon weighs a few milligrams.”
In a vacuum chamber test, they found that when the intensity of the light increased beyond the strength of sunlight, this additional burst of energy raised the leaflet. But after about 30 seconds, the disk began to turn with light force, and it finally collapsed. Bargaten says the very thin Mylar device is too flimsy on its own. The crease of the carbon nanotubes makes the Mylar disk stiffer, but the force of high-speed molecular collisions clamps the leaflet at the end. The team’s model can predict disk sizes, air pressure and light intensity causing this, and Bargattin says work on developing a lightweight frame is ongoing.
Bargattin envisions researchers someday launching lift devices loaded with sensors into the atmosphere and letting them roam, such as weather balloons or floating ocean sensors. “Another way is to develop smart posts that can control their destination,” he says. The same tilt that stabilizes the levers can be used to steer. He adds, hanging the sensor from a crane like a parachute suspended from a parachute will help keep the system upright when facing the wind.
However, Marsh is not convinced that such a device can withstand atmospheric conditions. He writes: “Any instrument should operate in the harsh conditions of the mesosphere, where average winds can easily exceed 100 miles per hour.” The winds at the top of the atmosphere can be particularly harsh, temperatures can drop to minus 140, space weather radiates through the atmosphere and can damage communication systems.
Paul Newman, chief geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, agrees that calculating atmospheric winds will be a huge technical challenge, but he can’t help but rejoice at the potential applications. “I think that’s a really cool idea,” he says. One possibility might be to examine water vapor in the mesosphere, where polar clouds form so high that the sun can still illuminate them at night. The Mysterious clouds Not only are they beautiful, Newman says. Their potential link to an increase in greenhouse gases means that they may become more common – but researchers cannot track the water content and temperature in the atmosphere as they would like. Mesosphere clouds are “another sign of climate change. We need information to prove it,” Newman says. “That’s why these could be really cool for getting data on atmospheric composition.”
Newman adds that the smallness of the plates and their ability to fly could also be of interest to Mars research. The air pressure in the Martian atmosphere is similar to that of Earth, so perhaps light and standalone cranes can collect temperature or composition measurements. “You can take off once a day, then get up, go back and get off your little Mars lander,” he imagines. “We don’t have this information on Mars. That would be cool.” (NASA plans to test A. A small helicopter called Creativity as part of Soon down to earth Rover’s mission to persevere, But that vehicle will be much larger and still in the test flight phase; Not ready for the science assignment yet.)
Bargatin says they are currently exploring applications for Mars, and that the team also hopes to have the microfiler work at sea level on Earth. But regardless of any final use, Azadi will always remember seeing Mylar’s creation float for the first time, totally according to his theoretical predictions. He says, “Then, I called my girlfriend and said, ‘I think I’ll graduate soon. “
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