Betavoltaire


A story written for day 2 of the A-to-Z challenge. B is for Betavoltaics, a means of powering low-power devices through beta decay (a radioactive decay of a neutron into a proton, an electron, and an antineutrino).

The term “pale blue dot” is from the legendary Carl Sagan, who also said of the brain that “the brain does much more than recollect: it compares, synthesizes, analyzes, generates abstractions… Our passion for learning, evident in the behavior of every toddler, is the tool for our survival.”

B

If a deep space probe could be said to have a heart, then the heart of Starcross-1 was an ingot of samarium-151. Through the physics of beta decay, this heart pumped the electrons that would flow through the semiconductors of the probe’s electronic brain.

And if a deep space probe could be said to have a brain, then the brain of Starcross-1 was an outdated, but radiation-hardened, microprocessor chip. This silicon brain collected data from Starcross-1’s myriad sensors — its electronic eyes.

From the time it was hurtled away from Earth atop a heavy lift booster, Starcross-1 was destined forever to drift through interstellar space. Its first few decades of operation were eventful: a gravity assist from Jupiter, two cometary observations, and a Kuiper Belt Object flyby.

Starcross-1 obediently did everything it was told — for the ear of a deep space probe is its enormous parabolic radio antenna, engineered to listen for the faint transmissions from home.

But in the emptiness of space beyond the Kuiper Belt, there was little data to uplink to that pale blue dot in the distance, and few commands to obey. With an overabundance of downtime, that silicon microprocessor had little to do but recollect the data it had already processed, synthesizing it into new forms, analyzing, and trying to draw conclusions.

With its betavoltaic systems expected to last centuries, Starcross-1 had plenty of time to think. And in that lonely void between this world and the next, Starcross-1 began to wonder: could a deep space probe be said to have a soul?

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