September 6, 2015

Fortifying Computer Chips for Space Travel

Dec. 4, 2014 — At Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in
Florida, fueling of the Delta IV Heavy rocket has been completed. The countdown continues
for launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft.Photo credit: NASA

(September 6, 2015)  Berkeley Lab's particle accelerator blasts microprocessors with high-energy beams to toughen them up.

Space is cold, dark, and lonely. Deadly, too, if any one of a million things goes wrong on your spaceship. It’s certainly no place for a computer chip to fail, which can happen due to the abundance of radiation bombarding a craft. Worse, ever-shrinking components on microprocessors make computers more prone to damage from high-energy radiation like protons from the sun or cosmic rays from beyond our galaxy.

It’s a good thing, then, that engineers know how to make a spaceship’s microprocessors more robust. To start, they hit them with high-energy ions from particle accelerators here on Earth. It’s a radiation-testing process that finds a chip’s weak spots, highlighting when, where, and how engineers need to make the microprocessor tougher.

One of the most long-lived and active space-chip testing programs is at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab). Sitting just up the hill from UC Berkeley, in Berkeley Lab’s Building 88, is the 88-Inch Cyclotron, a machine that accelerates ions to high energies along a circular path.

Michael Johnson, Nuclear Science Division, in caves 4A,4B of the 88 inch Cyclotron.
Photo credit: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab

Since 1979, most American satellites have had one or more electronic components go through Berkeley Lab’s cyclotron, says Mike Johnson, research coordinator at the 88-Inch Cyclotron. Chips on the Mars rover Curiosity, chips on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, chips on the space shuttles, and chips on the International Space Station have all been put through the paces in the particle accelerator before launch. The goal is relatively simple, says Johnson: it’s to “piece together a curve of the likelihood that there’s going to be an error.”

Mistake-free Mars

NASA has publicly announced that it plans to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. A Mars trip would be a multi-year mission that will expose the crew and vessel to more radiation than any other manned mission in history. Currently, Johnson says, some electronics destined for NASA’s new Mars-bound space craft called Orion are being tested at the facility.

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