New Technology Could Change Our Approach to Space Exploration

by Megan Ray Nichols

NASA and other space agencies continue to work tirelessly on finding new technology to make deep space exploration a possibility. The Korean Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, as well as NASA are currently working on a new technology involving self-healing silicon chips for spacecraft that will make the interstellar trip in the near future.

NASA will present the technology at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco in December 2016. The largest hurdle scientists have faced in regards to sending deep space probes is the intense radiation from the other stars and planets. This new technology will allow the silicon chips to heal after radiation exposure using a transistor made from nanowire technology.

How Self-Healing Chip Technology Works

As a deep space probe travels, its exposure to large amounts of radiation causes degradation before the probe can reach the end of its journey. Although a space shuttle or probe may run into other challenges such as heating and cooling or fuel issues, scientists believe the destruction from radiation scenario is avoidable by using a gate to surround the nanowire transistors.

This gate will use nanoscale wires instead of the current fin-shaped channels, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

According to KAIST, the production costs are less when using a smaller chip size and weight. The goal is to reduce the current 500 nanometer feature sizes with 20 nanometer feature sizes. Due to the small size, nanowire transistors can experience multiple rounds of radiation exposure and still self-heal through the gate to continue the interstellar journey.

The gate surrounding the transistor will heal the chip through heat as well as keep the flow of current from leaking when the transistor is not on. Throughout its time in space, the transistor can shut off to conserve energy periodically. Scientists recently studied flash drives damaged by radiation exposure and learned that the memory could recover up to 10,000 times through heating. DRAM was also recoverable for close to one trillion times.

Although adding a second gate for more protection and healing capabilities is a possibility, the production costs would outweigh the benefits. For the program to operate and produce a number of silicon chips for space travel, the costs have to stay as low as possible. NASA scientists are designing embedded microheaters for chips that would work with standard circuits, which could work as a possible alternative.

Advancing Space Travel With Nano Technology

Traveling faster than the speed of sound is a goal NASA is currently working on. However, scientists believe the new chip-sized technology could travel at one-fifth the speed of light as spacecraft. This means a small silicone chip could reach Alpha Centauri in as little as 20 years, which is 100 times faster than current spacecrafts can travel.

If NASA manufactures more silicone chips with lower production costs, the space agency can send several of these nanowire transistor spacecraft into deep space at one time. Although it sounds like a lofty goal, production for these transistors may reach peak production in the 2020s as the four companies that manufacture logic chips replace FinFET technology. These companies are GlobalFoundaries, Intel, Samsung and TSMC.

This new technology is an extension of the current FinFET transistors, which consist of channel sticks in the shape of a fin. However, it is not economically wise to continue “shrinking” the current technology. This means scientists will develop more nanowire transistors with multiple layers instead of just one as well as the gate that will extend underneath the circuit channels.

NASA and KAIST continue to modify and enhance current capabilities for efficiency at a lower cost with the goal of reaching another star galaxy within the next generation.

Megan Ray Nichols is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to helping others understand science news. Megan is also a freelance science writer. She is a regular contributor to Truth Theory, The Vision Times, and David Reneke’s World of Space. For the latest updates, you can subscribe to her blog. Megan also invites you to follow her on Twitter.

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