December 12, 2016 - 14:45 AMT
NASA helping Stephen Hawking get tiny ship to Alpha Centauri

NASA is helping Stephen Hawking and Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner with the monumental task of getting a tiny probe to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth. Project Starshot aims to propel a lightweight silicon "StarChip" to one-fifth the speed of light by hitting it with lasers from Earth, getting it to the star within 20 years. The space agency will help solve one of the thorniest problems -- the intense radiation of interstellar travel, Engadget reveals.

To accelerate it a chip with lasers to 134 million mph -- 1000 times faster than a regular spacecraft could go -- it has to be feather light. That means that radiation shielding is out of the question, as it would add too much additional weight, NASA believes. Another option, changing the chip's route to Alpha Centauri to avoid radiation, would add time without significantly decreasing the radiation problem.

NASA and researchers from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) think that the best option might be "self-healing" transistors. The team tested an experimental gate-all-around nanowire transistor to see if it could self-heal from radiation damage. Such chips can be used for both flash memory and logic transistors, and would be ideal for the project, according to KAIST researchers. That's because they have very small 20-nanometer features, making them both lightweight and relatively impervious to cosmic rays.