The rapid expansion of the commercial space satellite market*, consisting primarily of low cost LEO satellites, is now the market’s driving force, versus the constrained and much more expensive, higher altitude, geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellites. Along with these market shifts, one of the biggest questions is how much radiation hardening is necessary. Today’s high volume commercial space market cannot afford, nor does it often require, the more costly and demanding, radiation-tolerant, and space-qualified “traditional” chips, components, and devices.
High reliability traditional products were originally designed to survive for decades in the harshest environments of space, aboard NASA missions to the planets and GEO telecommunication satellites in high Earth orbit. That’s where radiation is more intense, along with the hazards posed to a spacecraft's electronics. Those 15-to-20-year rad-hard missions are now a smaller fraction of the satellite market. Today’s NewSpace commercial markets have a different structure—with mission durations of a few years, or even months, requiring only reduced levels of radiation hardening where threats from space radiation are relatively low.
The primary threat to satellite and spacecraft electronic systems is radiation. Effects range from temporary malfunction to long-term degradation to catastrophic failure. The best defense is radiation-hardened and tested electronics specifically tested for radiation performance and survival.
WHAT’S DRIVING THE COMMERCIAL SPACE SATELLITE INDUSTRY
- Cheaper launch costs
- Smaller, lighter, cheaper spacecraft
- The need for modern IC technology and increased functionality
- A focus on LEO missions and larger constellations of satellites
- Shorter time to market
The explosive growth within the commercial space industry sector allows for easier access to space than ever before. Deployment of inexpensive, low-earth orbiting mega-constellations consisting of thousands of satellites has already begun.
SpaceX, a leader in the commercial space satellite sector, is reusing its F9 rocket boosters while launching up to 60 lighter, cheaper satellites at a time into low Earth orbit. Ride-sharing and booster reuse result in less expensive launch costs, bringing down the price per satellite basis to as little as a million dollars. These LEO satellites circle our planet at an altitude of 341 miles (550 kilometers)—approximately 3% of the distance of geostationary orbit.
Low Earth orbit allows for much lower signal latency, providing faster response needed for applications such as mission-critical communications, remote robotic surgery, financial transactions, and gaming. However, at lower orbits, these satellites can’t see as much of the Earth’s surface as they could at the traditional GEO orbit altitudes, so larger numbers of them are required to provide the same amount of surface coverage.
Smaller satellites and mega-constellations are becoming more pervasive, with the projected launch of 1,000+ LEO satellites per year.
With so many satellites in a mega-constellation, a commercial enterprise cannot pay thousands of dollars a unit for traditional components and fly many satellites. NewSpace entrepreneurs operating in the commercial space satellite industry need a workable, economical solution best suited to the mission and risk-reward balance.