Cyclotron Facilities typically used to irradiate electronic devices in the laboratory
Maltese researchers from the Astrionics Research Group of the University of Malta are working with the French Space Agency, CNES (Centre National D'Études Spatiales) on the space qualification of some of the smallest satellites ever made. The considerable Maltese progress in this fascinating domain, while running on an almost negligible budget, was described as 'remarkable' by several top experts at the World’s second largest space agency by budget (EUR 2.423 billion in 2019). CNES is well-known for designing the Ariane 5 European heavy-lift launch vehicle, as well as jointly running the European Space Port at Kourou in the French Guiana.
CNES was established by President Charles de Gaulle in 1961 and today it has grown into the largest contributor to the European space research establishment. 'The research facilities run by CNES in Toulouse house some of the world’s most advanced electronics failure analysis equipment, among the other superlatives' says Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi who recently visited the site to kick-off the collaboration. 'Here one is able to edit circuits on chips to repair or change their behaviour – all done at sub-micrometer pinpoint accuracy. We can also inject temporary faults at will into any of the countless transistors found on modern microprocessors, in order to assess their individual behaviour in the harsh space environment.
Radiation inside the Van-Allen Belts is our primary concern. Impact from subatomic particles, when our satellites cross the lower end of these belts, can cause serious disruptions and even permanent damage inside modern electronic devices,' explains Dr Azzopardi.
The Maltese work on extreme satellite miniaturisation adds a new dimension to the relatively large satellite work historically taking place at CNES. It is fittingly timed given the growing worldwide drive towards smaller, cheaper and faster space missions that leave less impact in the orbital space debris field surrounding the planet, and are therefore more sustainable. Commercial off the shelf devices are the way forward for low cost missions, but their sensitivity to radiation represents considerable challenges to the electronics designer.
The collaboration, takes the form of a joint project called RESOLUTE (Radiation tolErance teSting Of pico-sateLlite sUbsysTEms) and was made possible through a special MCST-CNES bilateral funding program. Through this programme, the Malta Council of Science and Technology (MCST) awarded EUR 50,000 to the Astrionics Research Group in order to further study the reliability prospects of Malta’s first satellite systems, and take the ambitious project to the next level.
Electronic Engineering Research students Glenn Zammit, Matthew Sammut, Oliver Vassallo and Darren Debattista shall be placing their work to the test. Particle accelerators will be used to bombard the tiny circuit boards that make up the satellite with high-energy protons and heavy ions at several tens of thousands of kilometres per second. However, the Maltese circuits implement a variety of novel protective mechanisms to allow them to survive the upsets caused by the impacts. It is these mechanisms that will be evaluated during the one-year long collaboration.
Project RESOLUTE is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of theFoundation for Science and Technology, through the MCST-CNES Space Bilateral Fund.