Space

Self-healing nano-spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years

Self-healing nano-spacecraft c...
Researchers at KAIST and NASA have developed self-healing transistors for use in nano-spacecraft, to protect them from radiation damage
Researchers at KAIST and NASA have developed self-healing transistors for use in nano-spacecraft, to protect them from radiation damage
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Researchers at KAIST and NASA have developed self-healing transistors for use in nano-spacecraft, to protect them from radiation damage
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Researchers at KAIST and NASA have developed self-healing transistors for use in nano-spacecraft, to protect them from radiation damage

With our current technology, it would take a conventional spacecraft over 18,000 years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, but calculations indicate a nano-spacecraft made from a silicon chip and traveling at one fifth the speed of light could make the journey in just 20 years. The problem is, such a "space-chip" wouldn't survive the intense radiation and temperature swings of deep space, so a team at NASA and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) are developing a method for helping the chip heal itself on the fly.

Currently, there are three ways to maximize the survival of a chip on an interstellar journey: the most obvious is to add a metal shield to keep radiation out, but that can be bulky and defeats the purpose of the small, light craft. Alternatively, astronomers could choose a path for the spacecraft that minimizes its exposure to radiation, but that limits where it can travel, increases mission times and doesn't account for any unexpected hazards.

The third method, which was the focus of the study, is "radiation-aware circuit design." Rather than the standard fin field-effect transistor (FinFET), the team worked with a "gate-all-around" nanowire transistor (GAA FET) previously developed by KAIST. In these circuits, the gate surrounds the nanowire and permits or prevents the flow of electrons through it. Dual contact pads allow current to flow through the gate and the channel it surrounds, heating it to over 900° C (1,652° F) in under 10 nanoseconds, and that heat has been shown to fix performance degradation caused by radiation, stress and age.

This system of heating to invoke self-healing was tested in three different components critical for a silicon-chip spacecraft: a microprocessor, DRAM memory and a flash memory drive for storage. On all three counts, the system worked to extend the device's lifetime, and repeatedly deal with any defects caused by radiation. The flash memory could be repaired 10,000 times, and for the DRAM, that process could be repeated a whopping 1012 times over.

Coupled with GAA FET's baked-in advantages of hardiness against cosmic rays and allowing for much smaller circuits, the researchers conclude that the technology opens up the opportunity for sustainable nano-spacecraft to make long-distance space voyages.

The team presented their study at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco last week.

Source: KAIST (PDF) via IEEE Spectrum

5 comments
SeanPoulter
How susceptible would a chip with transistors like this be to latchup?
BartyLobethal
Presumably *any* craft travelling at 0.2C could make the trip in 20 years. What nano-scale power source will accelerate the nano-scale chip to that speed? Snarking aside, the self-healing mechanism is an interesting one that will probably have applications in more conventional space-flight, satellites and perhaps even civilian aircraft.
stewartm0205
A perforated solar sail could get the probe near a percentage of light speed. It would all depend on how light weight you would get everything. You use two sails. A small one that is used to drop it very close to the sun. A large one that will open once it is close to the sun.
R&D would be a little expensive. But the per unit cost would be small like a few thousand $ per unit.
Leonard Foster Jr
Just use cube Sats Em drive works. Well built electronics will last 20+ years in space with ezzz look at Voyager and the Mars lander's
DannyHarbison
Sounds like the beginning of the 'Borg.