NASA and The Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, CA are preparing to flight test 'micro spacecraft' as early as 2006. The first versions would be attached to larger space vehicles as 'black box' flight recorders to provide an independent monitor of conditions as standard-sized craft attempt to land on other planets.

Black boxes used in the aviation industry record conditions like speed, altitude and crew conversations; recovery of the black box helps investigators determine the cause of crashes. Lightweight, low-cost micro spacecraft would start by testing miniature sensor systems capable of gathering temperature, pressure and other data. They can also test heat shields that will someday protect human astronauts.


The Micro Spacecraft Black Box Recorder
Micro spacecraft could also serve as landing scouts, sent ahead of craft containing human astronauts. They could provide general reconnaissance and landing beacons for upcoming Mars missions.

Finally, scientists envision using micro spacecraft to do systematic studies of other planets; in particular, they could conduct on location studies of Venus, whose clouded atmosphere and hot surface conditions preclude human exploration (at least for a while).


The Micro Spacecraft Black Box Recorder
In his excellent 1969 novel The Man in the Maze, science fiction writer Robert Silverberg solved the problem of how to investigate a cloud-covered planet in an unobtrusive way.

"We parked a drone ship fifty thousand kilometers up and dropped roughly a thousand eyes on Beta Hydri IV. At least half of them went straight to the bottom of the ocean. Most landed in uninhabited or uninteresting places. This is the only one that actually showed us a clear view of the aliens."
(Read more about Robert Silverberg's recorder eyes)

Read more about micro spacecraft; you might also be interested in the EyeBall Omni-directional suveillance sensor, another facet of this same idea.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction.)