Stephen Hawking and Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner want to send a small spaceship to Alpha Centauri, the nearest neighboring star system to Earth’s Milky Way – and NASA just announced plans to throw its weight behind the lofty project. Project Breakthrough Starshot will use lasers to propel a lightweight silicon “StarChip” up to one-fifth the speed of light. If all goes well, the ship should reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years.

NASA will help solve one of the trickiest parts of the project – how to mitigate the intense solar radiation involved in interstellar travel. As Engadget notes, accelerating the chip with lasers to the planned speed of 134 million miles per hour (about 1,000-times faster than your average spacecraft travel), requires it to be incredibly light. This means that installing a proper radiation shield around the “StarChip” is out of the question due to the weight constraints.

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One plan NASA has suggested is changing the route to Alpha Centauri so the probe can avoid radiation, but this will make the trip longer without completely eliminating the radiation issue. NASA and researchers from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology think that putting “self-healing” transistors into the probe could be the best way forward.

So they’re working with an experimental “gate-all-around nanowire transistor“, which should be able to self-heal from radiation damage. Such an innovation would be perfect because it can work with both flash memory and logic transistors, while also having a tiny 20-nanometer structure. This makes it both lightweight and resistant to cosmic rays.

A lot more experimentation is needed before this kind of probe could get off the ground. But if it does, it could represent one of the best chances to find a habitable planet near Earth. That’s a huge deal, as Hawking himself has said we may only have up to 1,000 years left on our current planet.

Via Engadget

Video and images via Breakthrough Starshot YouTube