Stellar electronics

Modular, reconfigurable tech speeds sensor design and delivery

The space market is booming. It's projected to grow to $1 trillion over the next two decades, according to a report from the Space Foundation.

In this fast-moving market, the aerospace and defense industry is looking for faster and more affordable ways to build satellites – and their payloads – and place them in orbit.

“The one constant in this market will always be the actual space environment. And it’s harsh; tons of radiation, extreme temperatures and other phenomena,” said Wallis Laughrey, vice president of Space Systems at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, one of four businesses that form Raytheon Technologies. “Everything we build has to account for that, plus dissipating the heat that systems generate and fitting into a specifically-sized satellite.”

Fitting into small spaces requires advances in all space tech, including electronics – individual, circuit-like boards that help a satellite realize its mission. They perform functions like detecting targets while on orbit, processing data or compressing images.

To meet the needs of the accelerating space market, Raytheon Intelligence & Space makes electronics that are not only small and light, but also open-architecture and reconfigurable.

“Electronics can be built to go together, sort of like Legos,” said Laughrey. “Because we can build and configure them faster and more affordably than custom-made electronics, it helps enable the rapid design and build of new sensors.”

Today’s electronics are up to 10 times smaller than before – one particular board is about the size, length and width of an electronic tablet. They can be stacked together and arranged in different ways. And unlike regular, earthbound electronics like we see on laptops, for example, these space-grade electronics are built to withstand extreme radiation and harsh weather.

“Some electronic components will effectively short circuit when they’re hit by radiation particles, while others degrade over time,” said Dan Petrovich, technical director for RI&S Space Systems. “We make sure all of our parts can withstand radiation and are designed to basically last up to 20 years.”

Modern space electronics go beyond being configurable for different uses – some of the boards can even be re-configured while on orbit.

“There are instances where we could update a system with a new capability by uploading a new file from the ground to the sensor on orbit,” said Petrovich.

As threats evolve, it’s vital to quickly bolster existing space-based assets with new capabilities.

“Plug-and-play electronics can give military, government and commercial customers more options to access space more affordably and rapidly,” said Laughrey.