Today’s Spacecraft and Satellite Requirements Giving COTS a Fresh Look

Military Embedded Systems

Published in Military Embedded Systems

Article written by John McHale of Military Embedded Systems

The fast growth of small satellites and their lower life cycle and launch costs has created a sizable market for low-cost electronic components that have radiation-resistant characteristics. Designers are forced to get creative with their design processes and business models to meet this demand.

Opportunities for designers of electronics intended for use in the radiation-filled space environment are greater than ever with the growth of small satellites, the push toward mega constellations, and increased funding for military and NASA programs. An agile approach is necessary on electronics suppliers’ part, as end-users want their spacecraft – manned or unmanned – faster, with greater performance, having more stringent radiation protection, and at times at an 80% to 90% reduction in cost, which means more commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components.

“Increased funding from the Department of Defense (DoD) is a positive for the military space market, as brand-new DoD satellites are being defined,” says Tony Jordan, Senior Director of Business Development, Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions (Colorado Springs, Colorado). “We’ve also got a new threat in hypersonics that we can’t identify and track using traditional systems. Industry and the DoD are developing new methods for defeating those. There is also the promise of growth for NASA with the current administration setting a goal to return to the moon.

“Commercial-wise it’s all about constellations that are being built to gather more images of the earth and enable faster broadband communication,” he continues. “Small satellites are driving a paradigm shift in the business model because they are relatively inexpensive to launch, and inherently redundant because when one comes down you can just throw up another satellite. This is the commercial model of replacement as opposed to the model of the exquisite spacecraft that can last for 20 years without a repairman. The customer base understands the risk and some are willing to embrace it while others are more reluctant. It really depends on the mission.”

While those missions – typically classified – still exist, more and more programs are looking for ways to reduce costs to embrace new technology more quickly. Space electronics development times take years to prepare and ensure the components can survive in space.

“One of the reasons rad-hard circuits lag the commercial components by almost a decade is that the process technologies available do not have inherent capabilities to ensure the part can survive and operate in extreme radiation environments,” says Anton Quiroz, CEO of Apogee Semiconductor (Dallas, Texas).

“As commercial satellites get more and more complex, we are seeing a general trend of customers wanting more integration and higher-speed devices in a smaller form factor which challenges density and efficiency at the component level,” says Eli Kawam, Business Development Manager in Microchip’s Aerospace & Defense business unit (Chandler, Arizona). “We are also seeing our customers customize the satellites to the specific mission (i.e. ... orbit, timeline, etc.) and by doing this they are able to require less margin. This can result in lower radiation or quality requirements. These programs are also more sensitive to acquisition cost, service entry dates, and a technology refresh plan, so they are attempting to reduce costs by using components with lower levels of qualification and screening. Typically, military rad-hard applications require very high levels of qualification and screening, up to QML [qualified manufacturer’s list] class V for ICs, JANS for discretes, and class K for hybrids. In general, it’s all about trade-offs between performance, cost, operating lifetime, and time to market.”

Time to market is important, especially if you want to embrace state-of-the-art tech. “That pace is so fast today that if you have to make money with 15-life-year satellites you’re going to be bypassed,” says Jerry Festa, Senior Product Line Manager, Space Segment, Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions (C-W’s Newtown, Pennsylvania facility). “Cost is what’s driving space requirements to embrace more commercial components, that and the growth of the constellation and small-sat markets, which have much lower price points.”

COTS in Space

The procurement term “COTS” has often been considered taboo among space electronics designers, as the commercial part of the phrase connotes low quality and/or low reliability. Yet many COTS solutions are not low-quality at all and are in demand for critical space applications. This demand is forcing traditional high-reliability (high-rel) designers to meet the cost constraints while remaining radiation-tolerant.

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