Self-Healing Chips Could Revolutionize Interstellar Spacecraft

Flickr / NASA Goddard Photo and Video

When it comes to interstellar travel, human are noobs. Right now, it’s pretty difficult to develop the kind of technology that could withstand the rigors of deep space and safely venture to worlds unknown. So scientists at NASA and the Korean Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) are developing the new technologies that could make the interstellar journey for spacecraft easier. The latest breakthrough: a transistor for silicon chips that can heal itself after radiation damage.

At the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco on Wednesday, NASA scientist Dong-Il Moon will present the technology as part of the agency’s efforts to create chip-sized spacecraft that could be shot off into space at ultra-high speeds and reach neighboring star systems within a generation’s time.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because thats precisely the idea behind Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot initiative, which hopes to send a slew of nanocraft out to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth, and look for signs of habitable worlds.

We have only ever launched five interstellar probes (Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, and New Horizons). Only the first, Voyager 1 has actually made it to interstellar space. And it took almost four decades! One of the biggest hurdles is that deep space is riddled with intense bouts of radiation emanating from other stars and planets, as well as rapid swings in temperature.

Not even Starshot has revealed exactly how they plan to get around this barrier. That project wants to literally laser-beam solar sail-fitted chips into space at a 20 percent the speed of light, with the idea of getting to Alpha Centauri within 20 years. But two decades of being pummeled by cosmic rays is high energies is still too much for a regular silicon chip to handle. You can either choose to send the spacecraft to Alpha Centauri on safer but longer path, add shielding that will inevitably slow down the spacecraft, or develop another solution.

KAIST and NASA think that solution is to allow the chips to sustain damage but add an extra gate that repairs transistors through heating.

For support that this could work, the research team points to experiments that show radiation-damaged flash memory can be recovered up to 10,000 times over through heating, and DRAM can be recovered almost a trillion times. This is critical for an interstellar mission that could span for several decades.

Adding another gate for heating would unfortunately raise production costs. The whole idea behind Starshot is that it would be insanely cheap (on the scale of an iPhone) to manufacture such nanocraft. KAIST and NASA are both working on ways to reduce costs through other technological modifications to the chips.

Nevertheless, a chip that could heal itself after radiation damage could revolutionize how we explore ispace in the future. No longer would we need to just create tank-like probes to investigate the far reaches of interstellar space. It’s just a matter of time before we start throwing off chip-sized spacecraft into every direction and waiting to see what we find.

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