Image via WikipediaAstrochicken (n.) - A hypothetical biomechanical space probe that is both self-maintaining and self-propagating. More specifically, a thought experiment from Freeman Dyson, a physicist perhaps best known for conjuring up the insane sun-swallowing megastructures known as Dyson Spheres. Basically, an astrochicken is a cyborg Von Neumann probe, a mashup of genetically engineered biological parts melded with mechanical components that can create an exact copy of itself mutltiple times after launch. The biological component is what separates the astrochicken from other self-replicating probe concepts, as it would be self-nourishing and self-healing, much like most living creatures, and it would create offspring space probes during its lifetime. If fully functional, the population of astrochickens would increase exponentially, returning to Earth an ever-increasing volume of data about the universe. As is true of most of Dyson's theoretical concepts, teh astrochicken bridges multiple concepts is intended to be subversive, challenging entrenched notions of how to conduct space exploration and scientific progress.
I bring it up because: Tomorrow is the start of the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, which is perhaps the best example of a self-replicating techno-organic mashup that pushes the limits of known physics. Trust me, there are living things that appear at SDCC that no scientist is equipped to classify, and you'll usually find them ogling booth babes or audibly debating whether or not Batman should be a member of the Black Lantern Corps. And I say that is both a devout comics fanboy and former SDCC attendee. I'd gladly attend SDCC if I could, but I'd also keep a taser handy to ward off the husky mouthbreather in the Captain America t-shirt and sweatpants who won't stop humming the Dr. Horrible theme and stalking Felicia Day. Nothing we find on an extrasolar planet could be scarier than that.