A while back, we wrote about the amazing Breakthrough Starshot mission, which aims to make interstellar exploration possible. Proposed back in April by world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, the futuristic project envisions using powerful lasers to launch a fleet of chip-sized robotic probes into space, sending them on a 20-year-long voyage to the nearest star Alpha Centauri.
The mission, which is currently in its nascent stage, is a long way off from becoming a reality, mainly because it is highly unlikely for a postage stamp-sized spacecraft to be able to survive 20 years of extreme space conditions. The culprit here, according to researchers from the Korean Institute of Science and Technology and NASA, is cosmic radiation.
As pointed out by them, the ultra-powerful radiation would quite possibly damage the miniature spaceship’s silicon dioxide coating, causing it to break down long before the 20-year-long journey is over. One way of minimizing the problem is to choose a route that has very low ambient radiation. Doing so, however, will ineluctably extend the mission’s duration. What’s more, even weaker radiations are capable of inflicting serious damage to a spacecraft the size of a tiny chip.
The other option would be to use robust shielding around the electrical components. However, that will inadvertently add extra bulk, causing the probe to slow down considerably. As it turns out, there is a third, more effective way of solving the radiation issue: building a nanosized craft that constantly reverses the radiation damage and repairs itself during the course of the journey. Speaking about the brilliant technique, Jin-Woo Han of NASA said:
On-chip healing has been around for many, many years.
The answer, the team believes, lies in an innovative “gate-all-around” nanowire transistor that will allow the scientists to heat the spacecraft’s chip, enabling it to heal itself after exposure to cosmic radiation. Originally developed by scientists at KIST, the technology, which has already been tested in the laboratory, can help recover the chip’s flash memory by a staggering 10,000 times and DRAM memory by an impressive 1012 times.
For a chip to be self-healing, the researchers need to power down the craft’s chip every so often, causing the transistor to jump into action. Once the repairing process is over, the starship could be powered back up to continue with its journey at 20-percent the speed of light. The breakthrough, the scientists believe, could help make long interstellar space travel a reality.
To be able to survive the 20-year-long trip, however, the StarChip will also have to withstand other hazards, including collisions with space dust and gas. So, it might be a while before nano-spacecrafts can sail up to Alpha Centauri.
The findings of the research was recently presented at the 62nd International Electron Devices Meeting, held in San Francisco.