Challenges Faced by Electronic Components in Space

What are the challenges faced by electronic components that are used in satellites?

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Editorial Team - everything RF

Aug 25, 2020

In the past couple of decades, we have witnessed ever-increasing activity in outer space. Various countries have vastly increased their space capabilities with better satellites that offer numerous benefits. These satellites are used for multiple applications such as earth observation, communication, navigation, weather forecasting, space telescopes, etc.

With this boom in the satellite industry, there is a need for efficient and highly reliable components that will be used in building satellites. In this post, we will focus on the electronics aspect of the satellites. 

It is not a hidden fact that space is a very harsh and rough environment and the process of launching satellites into space is literally rocket science. So, the electronic components used in making satellites must be able to withstand a wide range of environmental challenges – from the complexities of being launched from Earth to the extremely harsh environment of outer space.

One of the relatively recent incidents of a space mishap due to electronic component failure occurred in 2011. Russia launched the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, whose mission was to visit the Martian moon “Phobos” and bring back 200 g of soil. But the spacecraft couldn’t leave Earth’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as its engines failed to fire. Investigation revealed that some of the electronic components used in the spacecraft were not space qualified.

There are numerous challenges that electronic components should be able to tolerate without affecting their performance. Some of these include:

  • Take Off: Satellites are carried to space using launch vehicles which are extremely powerful and complex machines. However, the process of take-off creates huge mechanical vibrations which can cause problems, such as resonance, in the electronic components.

ISRO’s PSLV C45 Take-Off

  • Outgassing: Outgassing is the phenomenon where trapped gas is released from a material such as plastic, glues and adhesives. The air or vapor that is released can deposit material on other devices and obstruct or reduce their working. Click here for more on Outgassing.
  • Extreme Temperature Variations: As there is no atmosphere in outer space, there is extreme variation is temperatures. For instance, the temperature on the surface of moon can vary from -200°C to +200°C during night and day.
  • Tin Whiskers: Space is a favourable environment for tin whiskers. Tin whiskers are electrically conductive, crystalline structures of tin that sometimes grow from surfaces where tin is used as a final finish. These can cause electrical shorts, so prohibited materials are a concern. As a result, pure tin, zinc, and cadmium plating are prohibited on IEEE parts and associated hardware in space. Lead-based solder eliminates the risk of electrical shorts. Click here for about Tin Whiskers.

Tin Whisker shown above growing between pure tin-plated hook terminals of an electromagnetic relay.
Photo Courtesy of Andre Pelham (Intern) NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

  • Space Radiation: Electronic components are highly sensitive to radiations, and space is practically filled with it. The radiation levels may vary with the orbit of satellites such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Geostationary Orbits or Interplanetary Missions. These radiation levels also vary with the solar cycle. The solar cycle is divided into two activity phases: solar minimum and solar maximum. The solar cycle also needs to considered in the calculations of satellite lifecycle.

These are a few of the major challenges that electronic components face in space however, the list doesn’t end here. As already stated, space is a very harsh and rough environment which also happens to be highly unpredictable. Click here to read an article that talks more about the challenges faced by electronic components in space.

Now, the question arises, how to identify if an electronic component is suitable for space applications. Not to mention, space missions and satellites cost a lot of money, and device failure can have catastrophic results on the objective of the satellite. There are certain certifications that determine if an electronic component is space ready or not. These certifications can be achieved only after the component has gone through rigorous testing under extreme conditions to ensure that it can withstand the challenges of space.

Click here to learn more about the Space Qualification process for electronic components.