Hive Mind: A Swarm of Microprobes Could Tell Us More About Jupiter

The miniature probes will gather atmospheric data before bursting into flames


Forget clunky, huge satellites—some of the newest space research requires probes that are much, much smaller. From sprites to tiny telescopes to diminutive computerized cubes, space exploration has been trending tiny for a while now. And a team of planetary scientists from Canada wants to take advantage of these technologies by sending a swarm of microprobes to Jupiter to gather data about its elusive atmosphere.

As much as satellites and large probes can do, they're not great at entering volatile atmospheres. In a news release, the Canadian researchers list the cons of big probes in this particular situation: they can’t go deep into clouds that would provide the most data, and they can’t transmit much data, either.

Instead of relying on big equipment to delve into the mysteries of Jupiter, John Moores and his colleagues want to use tiny “microprobes” that last just 15 minutes after they’re fired into Jupiter’s atmosphere. During their brief lifespan, the so-small probes will transmit 20 megabits of data—enough to provide more information than ever before about what the turbulent atmosphere’s like on the largest planet in the solar system.

Their project is called SMAll Reconnaissance of Atmospheres project (SMARA for short); the name came in part from the maple tree, which relies on wind to disseminate its delicate, helicopter-like “samara” seed pods. SMARA will do the same thing with a swarm of little probes. Since so much of the solar system's mass is contained in Jupiter, the scientists think that more data might be able to tell them more about the entire history of our immediate neighborhood.

It’s not final yet, but Moores and his colleagues hope to be able to plan a mission in tandem with the EU’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), which is due to launch in 2022 and will wind up in the Jovian system in 2030. Maybe the hive of tiny probes will get a glimpse of the elusive geysers on Europa, one of three moons JUICE will observe, before they disappear.

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