Science 2 min read

Radiation Resistant Chips Enable Smaller Satellites

Thales Alenia Space to build a joint satellite for Inmarsat and Hellas-Sat |

Thales Alenia Space to build a joint satellite for Inmarsat and Hellas-Sat |

In space, ionizing radiation is an essential factor in the lifespan of electronic components. Two manufacturers have partnered to produce new rad-hardened chips that could withstand irradiation and maintain high performance.

The near-space environment is a partial vacuum full of radiation. Subjected to this intense environment, most electronic components succomb to the effects induced by electrons, protons, and heavy ions. Prolonged exposure results in functional failures, with permanent and often irreversible effects.

Thales Alenia Space and IMEC have enabled radiation resistant satellites.Click To Tweet

Chip technologies are improving, offering new methods and means to deal with the problem of radiation whether from a nuclear explosion,  meltdown, or environmental exposure (space).

Proximity and Synergy

Thales Alenia Space is a Franco-Italian aerospace company that designs space systems such as satellites and is also one of the main suppliers of parts for the International Space Station. In 2014, aiming to position itself as a supplier for Ariane 6, Thales opened its second Belgian site in Louvain to manufacture satellites and electrical systems for launch vehicles.

In Belgium, the company will benefit from geographical proximity to the Institute for Microelectronics and Components (IMEC) which designs products that can be integrated into Thales’s aerospace products.

GaN-On-Si Powered Devices

IMEC is an R&D hub specialized in nanoelectronics and digital technologies that serve many sectors and industries. Known as a leader in GaN (gallium nitride bandgap semiconductor) technology, IMEC develops chips that are resistant to radioactivity.

Based on IMEC’s chip architecture, Thales and IMEC demonstrated how GaN-on-Si devices are resistant to heavy ion and neutron irradiation. The main limitation of GaN components is their low heat dissipation capacity comparable to that of silicon. To compensate, the active layer of GaN was integrated to metal substrates: GaN-on-Si substrate (gallium nitride-on-silicon).

Gallium nitride (GaN) electronics also compete with silicon in a number of applications (transistors, diodes, converters). The GaN components remain operational at much higher temperatures and voltages, which reduces the need for cooling.

GaN technology could generate a new generation of components for electric cars, energy, and aeronautics.

Thanks to device integration, electronic components continue to shrink leading to the development of smaller satellites (microsats) that are less shielded and therefore more vulnerable to radiation. IMEC’s radiation resistant technology addresses such problems.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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