Probesmith ZPE Device

The Probesmith paleocivilization is theorized to have possessed a form of zero-point "vacuum" energy, essentially free energy extracted from spacetime.
  The existence of this device, though considered radical in current Starweb physics, is surmised from several characteristics found in Probesmith probes. First, each craft would have needed power to sustain itself for the years-to-centuries it spent coasting between stars at one-third lightspeed or less. Second, there is no apparent external source for collecting this energy. Solar panels would obviously be ineffective, and while a drag device like a plasma sail could be used to tap power from the interstellar hydrogen the probe flew through, that would rapidly slow it down. And finally, there is an unidentified compartment near the center of every probe which housed a device of unknown function.
  Whatever this device was, the Probesmiths considered it important. It shared space with the probe's avionics and a back-up self-replication unit, and though its complete design is not known, the existing pieces do not conform with any known-plausible type of fission or fusion reactor. Power was definitely extracted from this area, but nothing seems to have been piped in.
  Thus, these traits gave rise to the long-standing theory the Probesmiths equipped their craft with some form of vacuum-energy power source. The design, which includes superconducting power coils, makes it apparent this device did not produce much power, instead "trickle-charging" the probe's coils for periodic bursts of wakefulness during its long coast. Considering the modern Starweb has no idea how to make such a thing, and that the design of the probes themselves comports fairly well with Second Interstellar Period practice, with the exception of this power source and the self-replication units, some xenologists theorize the Probesmiths acquired the ZPE technology (and possibly the replication one too) from another paleocivilization, found out how to duplicate it, and incorporated it into their designs.
  No intact Probesmith ZPE unit has been found, but this is not surprising as all known probe specimens are in extremely poor condition after 110 million years of cosmic weathering. It is further possible the device was somehow short-lived and physically degraded over time—it would only need to hold up for a few decades to a century at most in order to reach a close star, at which point the probe would replicate itself, creating child craft each with a fresh ZPE unit. Denying the probes the ability to repair their own power sources may have been done to implement a "lifespan" cap as a precaution against uncontrolled replication.
  ZPE technology is also not known to have existed among any other paleocivilization.
  Were this technology to be (re)discovered, the practical effects would be surprisingly minimal. It would probably be fragile, producing a miniscule amount of power at a low energy density, rendering it utterly unsuitable as a primary power source for a civilization, or even in applications like vehicles. It would, however, lead to a minor revolution in satellite, sensor picket, and space probe design—not coincidentally, the same things the Probesmiths used it for.

Cover image: by Vertixico


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