A breakthrough for space technology achieved by the University of Idaho’s Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research hit the front page of the Oct. 6 EE Times magazine, a leading industry publication for engineers and technical management.
“With Nod From NASA, Chip Set For Liftoff,” tells of the research team’s new design for a radiation-hardened error-correction microchip that consumes less than 15 milliwatts of power. Not only does it run at 100 times less energy than the current generation of space technologies, but it also operates more than twice as fast. The chip’s technology is eight years ahead of the commercial semiconductor industry roadmap for operating voltage.
“Placing our first radiation-tolerant Ultra Low Power chip into space represents a major milestone in a five year research program,” said Jody Gambles, associate director at UI’s research center in Post Falls. “We’re looking forward to this achievement of space flight heritage to launch the chip’s use by program managers across the space agency and at DOE and DOD,” he added.
CAMBR’s manufacturing partner is AMI Semiconductor Inc. of Pocatello. The technology has been licensed to PicoDyne Inc. of Annapolis, Md., which is responsible for testing and delivery to NASA of UI’s Reed-Solomon chip as well as other chips utilizing the technology. The Reed Solomon chip encodes data so that any noise during radio transmission to Earth can be detected and corrected.
The first production run of the chip was fabricated and packaged by AMI. It qualified for space flight and was delivered to the NASA New Millennium Program Space Technology 5 Mission for integration into the spacecraft. The ST5 mini-satellites, called “nanosats,” will each weigh less than 50 pounds, even when fully fueled. They are designed to orbit the Earth in a three-satellite constellation measuring charged particles in the magnetosphere.
Even with their small size, the nanosats will be capable of performing many of the same tasks as their larger counterparts, including communications, guidance, navigation and formation flying.
“The ability to perform such complex tasks using only small amounts of power is critical for such satellites, which cannot simply be plugged into a power socket in space,” added Gambles. “Reducing power requirements reduces the batteries needed, reduces the size of the solar panels and the total size of the satellite, which increases the number of satellites that can be launched -- all in a domino effect leading to new spacecraft designs and capabilities.”
While the Reed-Solomon is the first Ultra Low Power technology chip to fly in space, it is only one of several new designs that have been completed at CAMBR. Other Ultra Low Power chips include a high performance data compressor that increases the amount of data that can be sent to Earth from space, a microcontroller that can be used for a wide variety of programmable control functions, a data correlator used to measure surface rainfall from space, and a digitizer used to pass data from sensors into the digital logic chips.
In the future, the more Ultra Low Power chips that are included in a spacecraft, the more data collection and processing capability the satellite will have and the smaller and cheaper it will become.
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