Same-day delivery to space station succeeds

Aug 15, 2012 By Mike Williams
Same-day delivery to space station succeeds
Silicon nanowire forms when charge is pumped through silicon oxide, creating a two-terminal resistive switch. Graphic by Jun Yao/Rice University

( -- The journey of a set of devices from Rice University to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month gave new meaning to the concept of “fast chips.”

Rice sent its unique silicon oxide memory chips to the ISS as part of a NASA experiment to test their ability to hold a pattern when exposed to radiation in space.

The chips got there in a hurry aboard a Russian supply mission, Progress 48. Usually ships carrying people or supplies take two to four days to catch up with the ISS. But the mission that launched Aug. 1 promised same-day delivery – a first. The trip from launch to docking took less than six hours. (See the launch here and the docking here.)

“It’s exciting to see years of our research tested in the real environment where it might one day be used,” said James Tour, the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science. “That the science has reached this level is a joy for our entire team.”

Postdoctoral associate Jian Lin, graduate student Adam Lauchner and former Rice graduate student Jun Yao developed the chip in the labs of Yao’s advisers — Tour; Douglas Natelson, a professor of physics and astronomy and of electrical and computer engineering; and Lin Zhong, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The nonvolatile memory chips are part of an experiment called HiMassSEE; a container of devices from various sources will spend two years aboard the station to test for radiation hardening. At the end, they will be returned to their labs for comparison with identical chips stored on Earth to see how primary and secondary ionizing radiation affected their circuitry.

The technology behind the chips was a breakthrough when announced two years ago — a story that landed on the front page of the New York Times. Yao discovered that bits of memory could be embedded into slices of insulating silicon oxide by applying a charge to electrodes on either side. The jolt stripped the oxygen atoms and left behind five-nanometer channels of pure silicon – a conductor. Lesser charges would break and reconnect the silicon repeatedly and make a two-terminal memory unit.

The first attempt to send samples to the ISS was less successful. On Aug. 24, 2011, the day Yao left Rice for a postdoctoral position at Harvard, HiMassSee launched from Kazakhstan on Progress 44, a cargo mission that crashed minutes later in Siberia. Russian investigators found the cause was a malfunction in the Soyuz rocket’s third-stage engine.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Steven Koontz, the ISS system manager for space environments in charge of HiMassSee, said at the time in an email to his research partners that nearly all the materials needed for a duplicate payload were in place. “As Winston Churchill is reported to have said (many times), ‘Never ever, ever, ever, ever quit,’” he wrote.

Two-terminal made of silicon, one of the most abundant materials on the planet, could lead to very dense memories for computers and other electronics. The chips may become a key element of transparent electronics, and help extend the limits of miniaturization subject to Moore’s Law.

Explore further: NASA: Engineer vital to 1969 moon landing dies

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Rice-made memory chips headed to space

May 24, 2011

Rice University will send an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year. If all goes perfectly, it will be precisely the same when it returns two years later.

Russia tests faster space docking route

Aug 02, 2012

An unmanned Russian cargo ship docked with the International Space Station (ISS) in a record time, officials said Thursday, taking just under six hours from launch to complete the journey.

Recommended for you

Testing immune cells on the International Space Station

10 hours ago

The human body is fine-tuned to Earth's gravity. A team headed by Professor Oliver Ullrich from the University of Zurich's Institute of Anatomy is now conducting an experiment on the International Space Station ...

Easter morning delivery for space station

16 hours ago

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Apr 19, 2014

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 15, 2012
i wonder how much fuel was saved by the short delivery time
not rated yet Aug 15, 2012
I'll bet it takes more fuel to provide a shorter trip. Just guessing....
I believe this flight was cronicled here and it would be nice to have that link.

More news stories

Easter morning delivery for space station

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.

Poll: Big Bang a big question for most Americans

Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.