Tiny microchips by NASA

Some ASICs (Image NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Joy Ng)
Some ASICs (Image NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Joy Ng)

NASA has developed a series of microchips designed to be used on space probes. That’s the family of ASICs, consisting of chips designed to be small and at the same time resistant to the radiation present in the space and in particular in certain regions. They were used in the Juno space probe that on July 4 entered the orbit of Jupiter, a planet with a very powerful electromagnetic field.

Nikolaos Paschalidis, who is now the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had the idea of the ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) and started developing them when he worked at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Most of his early work concerned the miniaturization of space instruments and systems with advanced technologies such as electronics onto a microchip.

Today heliophysics is one of the most important subjects for Nikolaos Paschalidis’s work. That’s the study of the Sun and how it affects particles and energy in space. The Sun has a huge influence on the amount of radiation present in the solar system with its continuous emissions but also the interaction between solar wind and planets.

In the case of the planet Jupiter, the interaction between the solar wind and the planet’s electromagnetic field causes intense auroras and huge radiation belts around it. Those are really harsh environments for electronic equipment because the radiation that hit the microchips can lead to malfunctions. The alteration of a few bits could be enough to create major problems in a space probe. It’s true that there are safety systems to prevent the worst but a probe that interrupts its operations means at the verybest delays in its work.

The ASICs were already used in a number of NASA missions. In the case of the Juno space probe, they’re part of the JEDI (Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment) instrument, which is not a lightsaber 😉 but measures the composition of the magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds the planet Jupiter. The largest of the chips has the size of a saltine cracker and this allows the instrument to be very small, requiring less power and a lower shielding than larger chips.

NASA isn’t the only space agency developing microchips because ESA designs them as well for its space missions. Through their work these agencies contribute to progress in their space programs that can be useful also for the development of other tiny electronic components that can be at the same time powerful and efficient.

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