On-Chip Healing

NASA is working with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to develop a tiny spacecraft from a single silicon chip. This pioneering idea can significantly shorten interstellar travel time.

Dong Il-Moon of NASA presented this idea Wednesday at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco, with the added bit of ensuring the silicon chip ship survives the intense radiation that will bombard it in space.

In order to make sure it survives, the study proposes using KAIST's experimental "gate-all-around" nanowire transistor. Instead of the usual fin-shaped channels, it uses nanoscale wires as the transistor channel, with the gate completely surrounding the nanowire. An extra contact is added to the gate, allowing for current to pass through which fixes any radiation damage by heating the gate and the channel.

Self-healing transistor. Credits: Yang-Kyu Choi

Cutting Deep Space Travel Time

With this "nanoship", travel time to Earth's nearest neighboring stars is reduced to just 20 years, as the chip can travel at one-fifth of the speed of light. Now, 20 years is still a long time, considering all the things that can happen to the chip both on Earth and as it traverses space. But 20 years is a huge step up from the expected deep space travel time we're currently capable of. For instance, it would take more than 100 years to get to Alpha Centauri.

This nanowire transistor is ideal for space travel, says KAIST, with its relative immunity to cosmic rays and it's small size. "The typical size for [transistor-dimensions on] chips devoted to spacecraft applications is about 500 nanometers,” said lead researcher Yang-Kyu Choi. It's also cost effective. “If you can replace 500 nanometer feature sizes with 20 nanometers feature sizes, the chip size and weight can be reduced," Choi added.

Of course, much of this technology is still experimental and will require a great amount of investment in both money and knowledge to get first silicon chip spacecraft into space.

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