The Space-COTS Dilemma

It’s a cliché to say that cellphones are a marvel of computing power, one that is comparable to the supercomputers of only a few decades ago. However, it is astonishing the amount of leading-edge componentry available inside one for such a low price. That same cellphone is also a big driver of the need for more network system bandwidth. Satellite designers have to meet the challenge of satisfying a portion of that bandwidth and tend to look on in envy at the technology available to phone designers. So why can’t satellite designers use the same parts catalog available to phone engineers at Apple and Samsung? The answer isn’t simple, and how close to this ideal is possible depends upon the degree of risk that is acceptable to a satellite project. Note that the discussions that follow apply to many military applications also, particularly airborne platforms that are exposed to appreciable levels of atmospheric radiation.

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