Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"CHIPS: Electronics designed to endure the cold of space"

Spacecraft require heaters to protect their electronics from the cold, which for Moon missions can extend down to cryogenic temperatures below minus 150 degrees C (-238 F). Eliminating the extra expense, weight and power consumption of "warm boxes" used to house electronics was the goal of University of Arkansas electrical engineers who presented their design for electronic building blocks that can function down to minus 180 degrees C at this week's IEEE Aerospace Conference (March 7-14, Big Sky, Mont.).

BOTTOM LINE: An amplifier is only one part of the electronics typically needed to condition a raw sensor's output for recording and analysis, but its a start. If the other components needed inside NASA's "warm boxes" can likewise be cast in cryrogenic circuitry like the amplifier here, then a big impact could be made on the expense, weight, and power consumption of spacecraft. Note how the input, output and common-mode feedback circuits are isolated from one another physically (in the photo). Ultra-low-temperature circuitry is clearly more complex--a decade might pass before all the components in today's "warm box" can be cast in cryrogenic temperature chips.