NASA and Stephen Hawking are Building a Nano Starship

We’ve all looked up on a cloudless, star-filled night and wondered what is out there. Perhaps we shall soon find the answer to that pressing question. An ambitious project backed by Stephen Hawking and led by Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner is now teaming up with NASA. The group’s aim is to send a nano starship to a nearby star, Alpha Centauri.

Current estimates suggest that each “craft” would weigh about one gram and cost as much as a smartphone to produce. Looks like smartphones aren’t the only things slimming down these days. The interstellar bots will be boosted by a combination of cameras, photon thrusters, a power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. Talk about having a lot of baggage.

Nano Starship Sailing High

Artistic illustration of a NASA starship.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The announcement came in April when a team of scientists unveiled a new project to explore intersteller space, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot. The group wanted to utilize lasers to shoot thousands of nano starships to the Alpha Centauri star system 4.37 light years away. Just think about that long distance phone bill!

The plan is to accelerate small silicon chip based spacecrafts to one-fifth the speed of light in order to reduce travel time. If successful, the miniature explorers would reach Alpha Centauri in a little over 20 years. In comparison, conventional rockets would take 1000 times as long to travel the same distance.

Interstellar Roadblock

Illustration of spaceship leaving earth's orbit with shielding.
Source: Russia Today

However, not everything is smooth sailing. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that small hitches inevitably show up with lofty ideas such as this one. Researchers at NASA have found a major setback with the plan. High energy radiation in space would create flaws in the nano starship’s silicon dioxide layer. This would lead to the spacecraft ceasing to function before reaching its destination.

One idea proposed was to select a route through space that reduces radiation exposure. However, this would hinder the mission by limiting opportunities to explore. Another possible solution is to add shielding to the spaceship to reduce harm by cosmic rays. This too has a drawback; adding weight will reduce the maximum speed of the ship.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Physicist Stephen Hawking floating in zero gravity.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

But, wait! Not all hope is lost. Researchers have proposed a novel idea to let the nano starship suffer radiation damage, but design self-repairing chips. The technique works by using an electric current to heat the silicon chip. This would heal the damage received  through radiation exposure. That’s a new meaning to the term heat therapy.

Moreover, the chip would be turned off every few years during the nano starship’s journey. During this period, the transistor heating would repair any radiation-induced defects. Thereafter, it simply powers back up and continues on its voyage. With that said, it seems like this starship is ready to lift off!