Rice-made memory chips lost in cargo launch failure

September 12th, 2011

Rice-made memory chips lost in cargo launch failure


A Russian cargo ship carrying an experiment from Rice University was lost after launch from Kazakhstan Aug. 24.

On the eve of Rice NASAversary, silicon oxide memory chips developed at the university were bound for the International Space Station (ISS). According to NASA, Russian officials reported an “off-nominal” situation with the rocket’s third and final stage minutes after launch, and the ship did not reach its intended orbit. The ship reportedly crashed in an unpopulated area of eastern Siberia in the Russian Republic of Altai, near China.

The experiments were launched from Kazakhstan as part of Progress 44, with docking at the ISS expected two days later. The Progress capsule was carrying nearly three tons of food, water and other cargo to the station. Russian cargo ships use the same launch system as manned Soyuz missions.

The chips developed at Rice University in the labs of chemist James Tour, physicist Douglas Natelson and electrical and computer engineering professor Lin Zhong were to have spent two years aboard the ISS to see how the chips’ memories would stand up to radiation.

They were part of a larger NASA experiment called HiMassSEE, in which various electronic components were to be evaluated after exposure to primary and secondary ionizing radiation. Read more about the experiment here.

Rice graduate student Jun Yao developed the chips. He discovered that sending a current through silicon oxide, an insulator, could create a conductive pathway of silicon crystals. Electrical pulses could then repeatedly break and reconnect the pathway. That can be read as zero or one, the basic element of computer memory.

“it is a shame that the launch was unsuccessful, but I’m glad that it resulted in no human loss,” said Tour, Rice’s T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science. “It took Jun two weeks of 14-hour days, six days a week, to make the chips that were lost, but we can certainly recover.

“Hopefully, NASA will grant us another opportunity to place our chips on a future flight, and we will be ready. The setback is discouraging, and it underscores that space flight is never easy. But as always, humans will press on.”

Steven Koontz, the ISS system manager for space environments with whom Rice collaborated on the experiment, informed those who contributed to the range of components that were part of HiMassSEE that nearly all the materials needed for a duplicate payload are in place, and a “re-flight” is already in the works.

“As Winston Churchill is reported to have said (many times), ‘Never ever, ever, ever, ever quit,'” Koontz wrote.

Rice NASAversary, a celebration of the university’s connection to the 50-year-old Johnson Space Center (JSC) and its work with the nation’s space program, started Sept. 9 with the Rice Space Strategy Workshop and continued Sept. 10 with NASA day at Rice Stadium, in conjunction with the Rice-Purdue football game. Rice’s Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies will offer a short course with astronauts on the history of JSC, and on Sept. 14, Norman Augustine, who led two White House reviews of the space program, will speak at Duncan Hall.

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