NASA designing nano-starship which travels at 20% the speed of light
In theory the miniature spacecraft could arrive at Earth’s closest star system, Alpha Centauri, in 20 years – 100-times faster than a conventional spacecraft can achieve.
Hawking announced the ground-breaking project back in April which aims to slash interstellar space exploration times by using lasers to propel a nano-spacecraft the size of a postage stamp, called StarChip.
However, a 1cm-sized ship in space faces some major obstacles, in particular, radiation, according to researchers at NASA and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) who are working on the project.
Scientists say the long-term exposure to the high-energy radiation in space would accumulate a series of defects in the chip’s silicon dioxide layer, “where they degrade device performance”.
The most serious of the impairments is an increase in the current that leaks through a transistor when it’s supposed to be turned off, writes Spectrum, citing Yang-Kyu Choi, leader of the team at KAIST.
A couple of options which could minimize the radiation exposure to little StarChip involve either mapping out an easier path through space or fashioning a shield.
The former means adding time to StarChip’s journey and impacting its exploration, and the latter adds weight and essentially cancels the benefits of using a miniature spacecraft.
Speaking at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco this week, NASA’s Dong-Il Moon says the best option is to let StarChip suffer the damage and add an extra contact to the transistors which could automatically repair radiation damage while in-transit.
“On-chip healing has been around for many, many years,” says Jin-Woo Han, a member of the NASA team. It’s been around since the ’90s to be precise when a team at the National Microelectronic Research Center in Cork, Ireland, made the revelation that heat could help recover radiation sensors.
If successful, the chip inside the craft would be turned off every few years throughout the journey, enabling the transistor heating to heal any radiation damage.
Aside from radiation, an experiment by Breakthrough Starshot’s scientific team earlier this year found the impact from dust alone could be catastrophic, suggesting even a tiny shield may be needed to ensure success.
KAIST and NASA are continuing to work on the project, which won’t become a reality for many years. They say cutting the costs of self-healing tech is critical to the future of the program.