Space is no longer a distant frontier, nor is space exploration the exclusive purview of NASA. Bold new entrants in the so-called commercial space race are lowering the cost of putting something into orbit, both for science and profit.
More than a dozen private rockets, capsules and space planes are under development today. Most will carry cargo, while others will carry people; space tourism may be here soon. Meanwhile, venture capitalists are anteing up for a piece of the space action. They’re calling it Space 2.0.
Not to be outdone, NASA’s teamed up with several aerospace companies to develop the Space Launch System for exploring deep space and, eventually, Mars.
The impetus for these developments is advances in materials, manufacturing processes, propulsion systems and software, but perhaps the most important driver is semiconductor technology. Where size, weight and power are paramount, the ability to cram ever greater processing and sensing into a smaller space, without penalty, is invaluable.
Semiconductors are vital to virtually every operational function: The efficient generation, distribution, storage and regulation of on-board electrical power; positioning of the spacecraft, its antenna and solar array using several sensors; communicating with Earth and other spacecraft, and for processing and distributing data.
But space isn’t hospitable. The danger to semiconductors is radiation; high-energy particles present in space easily ionize atoms, freeing electrons to create excess charge, which can produce both transient and lasting effects. Semiconductors have to be “hardened” against radiation effects.
The bigger picture? It may be rough out there, but thanks to semiconductors, space is open for engineering innovation. Here’s more on chips in space — innovating your space solutions using radiation hardened and assured products.