Investigating Cosmic Radiation’s Impact on Complex Microelectronics
Satellites and spacecraft have complex microelectronic devices on board. Should they fail, the consequences can be catastrophic. Cosmic radiation in space can damage sensitive electronics. Researchers have been looking into the influence of radiation on electronics.
What influence does cosmic radiation have on electronics that are packed into satellites and spacecraft? Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Technological Trend Analysis (INT) in Euskirchen, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt are looking into just that. Scientists are using the particle accelerator at the GSI to bombard microelectronic components with relativistic ions, under the direction of the INT scientists. The GSI accelerator is the only facility in Europe that can be used to produce ion radiation similar to the cosmic radiation encountered in space.
The research project aims to test the suitability of various microchips for use in space. Furthermore, fundamental research is being conducted which will help develop radiation-resistant, lighter and more compact electronics to save room and weight. In the future, space systems will be able to dispense with the hitherto necessary shielding and backup electronics that are built-in for certain devices.
“We want to investigate systematically for the first time how the energy from ion beams affects microelectronics,” says Stefan Metzger, project manager at the Fraunhofer Institute.
Staff from the INT are supporting the project with a customized measurement infrastructure, which can be used to detect these kinds of faults in electronic devices. In an initial experiment, the scientists bombarded a microchip provided by ESA with gold ions. The analysis confirmed their hypothesis that the chip’s susceptibility to failure largely depends on the energy in the ions. More systematic bombardment tests involving various devices and a range of ions and energy levels are planned over the next few years as part of a detailed study.
“Ion beams are the main constituent of cosmic radiation and have the greatest impact on microelectronics. We need to understand this influence precisely if we want to optimize electronics specifically for space applications in future,” says Marco Durante, director of the biophysics department at the GSI.
Even a single ion can cause damage to microelectronic devices. The ion’s high electric charge and energy can generate free carriers in the semiconductor materials in the microchip. These, in turn, generate small electric currents, which can cause the chip to malfunction or fail.