When thinking about space, the average person often forgets how intensely chaotic conditions can be in a void with no protective atmosphere. When your industry involves creating technology that will be exposed to this environment, it suddenly becomes a high level priority.
During his internship with Trusted Semiconductor Solutions (TSS), Colin Terry stepped into the world of space qualified technologies. Blasting circuitry with extreme levels of radiation in a Colorado test facility to someday launching that technology beyond our atmosphere, sounded like a pretty cool way to spend a summer internship. So SciTechsperience sat down with Terry and TSS to learn what it takes to design integrated circuits built to withstand the radiation of space.
Also involved in industrial, avionics and military/defense, TSS’s core competencies lie in developing microelectronics for space, specifically circuit design and manufacturing to be used on satellites. To help them advance their mission to develop space-ready technology, TSS brought on integrated engineering intern Colin Terry to assist with a recent project for the United States Air Force.
Terry, a senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato, is part of the Twin Cities Engineering Program (TCE). There, students learn traditional engineering application and skills in a project-based learning environment. They work with industry members on real-life design projects with a focus on integrating technical and professional knowledge and competencies.
TSS has executed a multi-year contract with the Air Force and reached out to TCE to request the assistance of a capable engineering student to help accelerate their development. Terry was the recommended candidate.
“It’s very valuable to have someone with this level of energy and excitement join our team,” said TSS Vice President Stephanie Pusch. “It’s refreshing. TCE has done so much to prepare their students to have the necessary mindset, attitude and skillset required for this level of work.”
The Colorado Blast
Working together with the TSS engineering team, Terry is helping to develop a radiation hardened digital-to-analog converter designed to modernize satellite communication systems. However, in order for the technology to work effectively in the harsh conditions of space, the converter’s performance needs to be proven through comprehensive radiation testing.
According to NASA, “The hazards of space radiation pose significant problems in a long duration space flight and they must be included in the design consideration [of space-bound technology]. In particular, the radiation hardiness of the materials used in structure, shielding, and electronic equipment plays a large role in determining the useful lifetime of the satellite, probe, or robot.”
“Colin has really been driving the radiation testing,” said Allan T. Hurst Jr., CEO of Trusted Semiconductor solutions. Terry and TSS have already conducted two major radiation tests on their integrated circuits. One round of testing in was performed using a Cobalt-60 source in Bloomington, MN and a second at a flash X-ray facility in Colorado. By subjecting and analyzing their product through controlled radiation tests, TSS can prove that their circuits are able to withstand high doses of radiation without destroying themselves, therefore validating the expected performance once deployed in space.
The most memorable moment of his internship, Terry says, was traveling to Colorado to assist with these tests.
“When we went out to Colorado,” Terry explained, “They have this thing called a flash X-ray Machine. […] It uses a principal called bremsstrahlung which basically means, as electrons pass by other atoms they are deflected and that deflection creates X-rays. These are very similar to gamma rays. So basically it sends a beam of X-rays at whatever target you want to radiate.”
Typically radiation like this damages electronics to the point that they function incorrectly or not at all. TSS’s circuits can handle radiation in very high doses. And since the circuits were designed to withstand radiation effects, it won’t destroy itself or degrade when exposed to these conditions.
To help us visualize the process, Hurst compared the machine to a nuclear missile. Now, in case you’re also picturing the classic nuclear test footage like I did, you can relax. The radiations tests are conducted in a controlled, indoor environment. “This is typically an 8 foot diameter tube that may be 30 to 40 feet long,” Hurst explained. “The capacitors are at one end. They charge this thing up and they shoot it at the target. It’s basically like a blast. It goes through the target and at the other end of it is our device. It can be right up next to the target, or five feet away and that’s how we modulate the dosage.”
The process, Hurst assured us, is safe, accurate and able to replicate the energy and complexity not otherwise found in terrestrial radiation.
From firing high-powered X-rays, to spending whole days in the lab analyzing data, Terry’s internship with TSS included a diversity of experiences. Every day, however, was a new learning opportunity.
“I want to learn everything,” Terry joked. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”
Not long after our interview, Terry was offered a full time position at TSS and has since been hired as an engineer.
“When we started this program,” Hurst said, “we were very ‘senior’ focused. Now we’ve realized the potential in hiring someone new with the fire and passion and ingenuity to come up with new ideas. Working with Colin has given me more faith that we can take this path. This has changed my mentality about how to staff this company.”
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