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For all of recorded human history, we've dreamed of what was beyond the sky. It's a topic that has intrigued us for millennia, and as a species, we've deemed it central to answering our most fundamental questions:
Who are we?
Why are we here?
Are we really alone?
It's a fascination that found a voice as early as 4000 years ago in the ancient Sumerian myth of Etana when the author references the unknown and our fear of what lies beyond the earth in the passage:
‘Clinging to the underbelly of the great eagle, Etana is carried up into the heavens. He is so far up that, when he looks down, he cannot see the earth and becomes afraid. He cries out to the eagle, "I looked but could not see the land! Nor were my eyes enough to find the vast sea! My friend, I won't go up to heaven Set me down, let me go off to my city" and then lets go of the eagle and plunges toward the earth. The eagle swoops down after Etana and rescues him.’
In modern times, science has provided many of the answers that our ancestors had once filled in with myth and legend. At the time of this writing, humans have been living in space (on the ISS) continuously for 18 years, yielding valuable insight into our place in the universe, and how we, as a species, may one day branch out beyond low Earth orbit and explore our galaxy and beyond.
The human spirit, indomitable as it is, has been ready to take that leap for many years, but our technology hasn't been up to the task. We face innumerable questions as to how to protect our first ambassadors heading into deep space, not to mention figuring out how we're going to propel them to their destination (and back). It's that second problem that may be heading towards a solution, due to some intriguing new research using one of the world's best known, and most ancient precious materials.
A Problem of Longevity
One of the biggest problems that scientists have faced when designing next-generation propulsion systems for use in deep space exploration is figuring out how to construct electronic components that can stand up to the punishment of spaceflight, stemming from vibration, heat, and radiation. Beyond simple survival, though, the needed components must also operate efficiently under difficult conditions so as to minimize power usage and extend their useful life (remember, there's no resupplying a deep space mission).
Today's electronic components rely on silicon-based semiconductors, which don't perform well in the extreme conditions that will occur in deep space. Silicon-based transistors, one of the most basic components of modern electronics, fare especially poorly, as they are prone to failure under stress. Solving that issue requires developing transistors unlike any that have come before, and now, it looks like it's happening.
An Ancient Material to Solve a Space-Age Problem
Recently, scientists working on a team at the Australian National University announced that they had succeeded in creating a next-generation transistor that didn't suffer from performance issues or high failure rates when exposed to extreme heat or radiation. They had done so by substituting a new material in place of today's state-of-the-art Silicon Carbide or Gallium Nitride transistor bases: diamond.
More specifically, they used custom, lab-created diamonds as a base for their transistor design. To make it work, they grew tiny diamonds with ultra-flat surfaces, then coated them with layers of hydrogen atoms and hydrogenated molybdenum oxide. The conductive materials belong to a class of solids known as transitional metal oxides (TMOs), which offer reduced resistance and superior power output characteristics.
A Diamond in the Sky
While the new diamond-based transistors are still in the proof-of-concept phase, the scientists behind the research anticipate that their design could be put into wide-scale production within three to five years. That would provide space agencies and private designers with some of the components they need to get some of today's most advanced deep-space propulsion system concepts off of the drawing board and onto the launch pad. That would bring humanity one giant step closer to our long-held desire to see what's out there with our own eyes—and finally make our way into humanity's final frontier.