Benchmark Lark Technology, a company that aims at providing comprehensive solutions across the entire product lifecycle; leading through their innovative technology and engineering design services, has developed custom built RF filter designs for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to meet the stringent requirements of the interplanetary space. This customized filter design is part of the Europa Clipper Spacecraft program introduced by NASA-JPL. Benchmark is expected to launch the design during the year 2024.
Lark's work on the Europa Clipper began when long-time customer NASA-JPL provided them a limited specifications sheet to build a prototype RF filter without details regarding the final application. It's not uncommon for customers to require confidentiality around a filter project, and the appropriate filter design can still be achieved without requiring additional details. Upon receiving the prototype filter, NASA-JPL engaged Benchmark for a more robust design partnership.
The development for this project began and it was realized that two key challenges had to be addressed. First, the RF filter must survive constant vibration and extreme temperatures on the journey to Europa. Second, the filter required the highest-quality environmental protections to withstand Jupiter's high radiation levels once it arrives.
Click here to read about the space qualification process for electronic components.
To address the longevity challenge, the company focused on a few critical processes: design engineering, manufacturing, and test/inspection. Due to the violent nature of the launch and extremely long flight (even at high speeds, covering 500 million miles takes time!), the RF filter would be built and packaged using resilient materials with minimal failure points. The manufacturing process had to be tightly controlled to avoid any design variation, so they created a system with a higher-than-usual number of inspection points. Frequent in-process inspection is typically not cost-effective or required for a commercial application, but it can be an option for critical-reliability space applications. More importantly, it has to be ensured that everything was built to last in the harshest environment.
Once they had developed multiple prototypes, they began putting the filters through numerous stress tests designed to simulate Jupiter's moon's launch and flight effects. One critical test involved a temperature chamber running the filters at full power under extreme heat (125º C). This test became the most strenuous part of the process. The filters went through roughly 1,000 hours in the chamber, with an inspection occurring every 100 hours.
Secondly, the filters were put through a temperature shock machine. During most of the Europa Clipper's journey, the RF systems will not be fully operational to conserve power. Materials can become fragile in cold temperatures while the spacecraft is running at low power. When the spacecraft fires up again, the internal temperature rises quickly, and the immediate temperature change can damage parts. The test system simulated the shock of going from high temperatures at launch to frigid temperatures of space, followed by the higher temperatures of full operation. The temperature cycled multiple times during this portion of the test.
Once the ability to prove the final filter would last through the launch and space flight's environmental conditions was understood, they began to look at radiation protection. The first step in this process was to select the right materials for the filter itself, so they worked with their suppliers to address this challenge. While they could guarantee some performance, they couldn't give them the precise data on how long the material would hold up in intensive radiation. After all, Jupiter's radiation is equivalent to 100 million x-rays—even radiation hardening materials used as protection against solar radiation aren't built for that!
Benchmark’ engineers had to perform internal tests to validate whether the materials could meet the stringent specifications. As the RF filters are less vulnerable than the spacecraft's active components, they could sufficiently harden them with the commercially-available materials. Since the radiation levels will be so high on this mission, NASA only expects the spacecraft to make a few trips around Jupiter before it succumbs to the emissions, and we expect the filters to hold up much longer than the spacecraft itself.
The fully tested filters were then delivered to NASA so that the team can finish building the spacecraft.
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