French Space Agency to qualify first Maltese PicoSatellite prototypes

Radiation testing facilties. (source: University Malta)

Maltese researchers from the Astrionics Research Group of the University of Malta (UM) are working with French Space Agency CNES (Centre National D’Études Spatiales) on the space qualification of some of the “smallest satellites ever made,” according to a press statement sent Business Malta.

The Maltese work on extreme satellite miniaturisation adds a new dimension to the relatively large satellite work historically taking place at CNES. The UM says that its efforts come in a timely manner, due to growing worldwide drive towards smaller, cheaper and faster space missions that leave less impact on 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 press statement says.

The collaboration takes the form of a joint project called RESOLUTE (Radiation tolErance teSting Of pico-sateLlite sUbsysTEms) and happens in the framework of a special MCST-CNES bilateral funding program — the Malta Council of Science and Technology (MCST) awarded €50,000 to the Astrionics Research Group in order to further study the reliability prospects of Malta’s first satellite systems.

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, the press statement explains

However, the Maltese circuits implement a variety of novel protective mechanisms to allow them to survive the upsets caused by the impacts, which mechanisms will be evaluated during the one-year-long collaboration.

CNES Toulouse Space Centre. (source: University Malta)
CNES Toulouse Space Centre. (source: University Malta)

CNES — established by President Charles de Gaulle in 1961 — is 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. For today, CNES has grown into one of the largest contributors 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,” said 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-micrometre 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,” Mr Azzopardi added.

“Radiation inside the Van-Allen Belts is our primary concern. The 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,” Mr Azzopardi concluded.

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