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Astrochicken is the name given to a thought experiment
Thought experiment
A thought experiment or Gedankenexperiment considers some hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences...

 expounded by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson
Freeman Dyson
Freeman John Dyson FRS is a British-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering. Dyson is a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists...

. In his book Disturbing the Universe (1979), Dyson contemplated how humanity could build a small, self-replicating
Self-replication is any behavior of a dynamical system that yields construction of an identical copy of that dynamical system. Biological cells, given suitable environments, reproduce by cell division. During cell division, DNA is replicated and can be transmitted to offspring during reproduction...

 automaton that could explore space more efficiently than a manned craft could. He attributed the general idea to John von Neumann
John von Neumann
John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician and polymath who made major contributions to a vast number of fields, including set theory, functional analysis, quantum mechanics, ergodic theory, geometry, fluid dynamics, economics and game theory, computer science, numerical analysis,...

, based on a lecture von Neumann gave in 1948 entitled The General and Logical Theory of Automata. Dyson expanded on von Neumann's automata theories
Automata theory
In theoretical computer science, automata theory is the study of abstract machines and the computational problems that can be solved using these machines. These abstract machines are called automata...

 and added a biological component to them.

Astrochicken, Dyson explained, would be a one-kilogram spacecraft
A spacecraft or spaceship is a craft or machine designed for spaceflight. Spacecraft are used for a variety of purposes, including communications, earth observation, meteorology, navigation, planetary exploration and transportation of humans and cargo....

 unlike any before it. It would be a creation of the intersection of biology, artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is the intelligence of machines and the branch of computer science that aims to create it. AI textbooks define the field as "the study and design of intelligent agents" where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its...

 and modern microelectronics—a blend of organic and electronic components. Astrochicken would be launched by a conventional spacecraft into space, like an egg being laid into space. Astrochicken would then hatch and start growing a solar energy collector. The solar collector would feed an ion drive engine that would power the craft. Once Astrochicken entered a planet's vicinity, it would collect material from the moons and rings of the planet, taking in nutrients. It could land and take off using an auxiliary chemical rocket similar to that used by bombardier beetle
Bombardier beetle
Bombardier beetles are ground beetles in the tribes Brachinini, Paussini, Ozaenini, or Metriini—more than 500 species altogether—which are most notable for the defense mechanism that gives them their name: When disturbed, the beetle ejects a noxious chemical spray in a rapid burst of pulses from...

s. It would periodically transmit details of its journey when it could make radio contact with Earth.

The term "astrochicken" does not occur in Dyson's earliest essays regarding von Neumann-inspired automata. When Dyson was giving a lecture in Adelaide, Australia on the subject of space exploration with biotechnology
Biotechnology is a field of applied biology that involves the use of living organisms and bioprocesses in engineering, technology, medicine and other fields requiring bioproducts. Biotechnology also utilizes these products for manufacturing purpose...

, an audience member called out "Oh, you mean this is an astro-chicken." The whimsical name caught on, and Dyson began to use it himself in subsequent essays he wrote on his theoretical biotechnology spacecraft.

Today, Dyson's Astrochicken resonates with several theories of how space exploration might proceed in the future. Computer scientist Rodney Brooks
Rodney Brooks
Rodney Allen Brooks is the former Panasonic professor of robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 1986 he has authored a series of highly influential papers which have inaugurated a fundamental shift in artificial intelligence research...

 has proposed sending a multitude of cheap, bug-like robots to explore Mars instead of solitary, expensive rovers. Cheaper and smaller means of studying space have also been the primary design philosophy of NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

 for many years, perhaps best exemplified by the Mars Pathfinder
Mars Pathfinder
Mars Pathfinder was an American spacecraft that landed a base station with roving probe on Mars in 1997. It consisted of a lander, renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, and a lightweight wheeled robotic rover named Sojourner.Launched on December 4, 1996 by NASA aboard a Delta II booster a...

 mission. Physicist and noted author Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku
is an American theoretical physicist, the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics in the City College of New York of City University of New York, the co-founder of string field theory, and a "communicator" and "popularizer" of science...

 wrote in his work Hyperspace, "Small, lightweight, and intelligent, Astrochicken is a versatile space probe that has a clear advantage over the bulky, exorbitantly expensive space missions of the past, which have been a bottleneck to space exploration. ... It will not need huge quantities of rocket fuel; it will be bred and programmed to 'eat' ice and hydrocarbons found in the rings surrounding the outer planets".

In recent years, Dyson has referred to Astrochicken as a "joke", though it is not quite certain what he means by this. He went on to say "I think it's a sensible idea, but one shouldn't take it literally. We don’t have the science yet; we don't have the technology. It would be a disaster if NASA tried to do this in the bureaucratic NASA style."

As a noted author of essays on the possibilities of science in the future, Dyson's theories, such as the Dyson sphere
Dyson sphere
A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure originally described by Freeman Dyson. Such a "sphere" would be a system of orbiting solar power satellites meant to completely encompass a star and capture most or all of its energy output...

 and the Dyson tree
Dyson tree
A Dyson tree is a hypothetical genetically-engineered plant, capable of growing in a comet, suggested by the physicist Freeman Dyson...

, have become popular in the scientific and science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 communities. The more whimsically named "Astrochicken" has not achieved this same level of fame.

See also

  • Bioship
    A bioship is a type of spacecraft or starship described in science fiction. Bioships differ from other types of spacecraft in that they are composed, either predominantly or totally, of biological components, rather than being constructed from manufactured materials...

  • Grey goo
    Grey goo
    Grey goo is a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves, a scenario known as ecophagy .Self-replicating machines of the macroscopic variety were originally...

  • Interstellar travel
    Interstellar travel
    Interstellar space travel is manned or unmanned travel between stars. The concept of interstellar travel in starships is a staple of science fiction. Interstellar travel is much more difficult than interplanetary travel. Intergalactic travel, or travel between different galaxies, is even more...

  • Panspermia
  • Space colonization
    Space colonization
    Space colonization is the concept of permanent human habitation outside of Earth. Although hypothetical at the present time, there are many proposals and speculations about the first space colony...

  • Self-replicating machine
    Self-replicating machine
    A self-replicating machine is an artificial construct that is theoretically capable of autonomously manufacturing a copy of itself using raw materials taken from its environment, thus exhibiting self-replication in a way analogous to that found in nature. The concept of self-replicating machines...

  • Von Neumann probe
    Von Neumann probe
    The idea of self-replicating spacecraft has been applied — in theory — to several distinct "tasks". The particular variant of this idea applied to the idea of space exploration is known as a von Neumann probe...