As a new era of commercialized space flight begins, NASA and private space companies are rushing to colonize the Moon and Mars for space tourism and exploration. Although this follows a well-sought out plan to land astronauts on the lunar south pole by 2024, and a crewed surface lander on the red planet by 2030, we have yet to learn a great deal from our closest neighbor, Earth’s sister planet Venus. Albeit different to Earth in so many ways, the scorching conditions on Venus were once Earth-like. Although no U.S. lander has ventured to the surface of the planet since the 1980s, NASA’s revived interest in Venus could lead to a potential flagship mission to learn how habitable our doppelgänger planet may have been.
Successful future explorations into the extreme environment of Venus’ surface—where the thick atmosphere traps the Sun’s heat, resulting in surface temperatures higher than 880 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius)—would need complex electronic systems that can operate at high temperatures. Luckily, creating extreme environments technology is among the top priorities of Ozark Integrated Circuits, a business dedicated to producing novel circuits for ‘rugged’ applications. The Arkansas-based company has been recently selected by NASA as one of the 139 proposals for follow-on funding through the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop a prototype multi-chip package for high-temperature, high-density electronic systems.
Furthermore, Ozark will be working with nScrypt’s research arm, Sciperio, and an nScrypt 3D manufacturing system to create high-temperature electronic systems, specifically, a RISC-V processor that would operate for extended times on the surface of Venus.
The company’s ‘Extreme Environment System Integration Techniques for Venus In-Situ Processing‘ proposal aims to create a 500⁰C RISC-V multi-chip system in package as a vehicle to illustrate the design procedures, the multi-chip package and the high-temperature components that go into creating a high-temperature electronic system.
A 500⁰C RISC-V microprocessor is a fundamental computing building block for almost all space exploration functions on the surface of Venus, such as actuation, environment sensing, and robotic motion. However, high-temperature environments that can use this computing building block are also found in rockets, as well as other potential non-NASA applications, such as jet engine control systems; hypersonic engines for flight and weapons; geothermal exploration (which has an environment very similar to the Venus surface); scientific experiments, including volcanic analysis, and control and monitoring of production furnaces.
“Additive manufacturing is a cornerstone of Ozark IC’s approach to high temperatures,” described Matt Francis, founder and CEO of Ozark. “Our adoption and adaption of AM, especially nScrypt’s products, is a game-changer. Impressive performance (up to 800⁰C) has been achieved, all with the lower cost and fast turnaround metrics commonly found with AM. The unique quality and versatility of the nScrypt system have enabled Ozark IC to develop new processes and products and achieve amazing results in performance and turnaround time”.
The work was originally funded by a NASA SBIR Phase I project and will be continued in the Phase II project, announced in early May. All Phase II proposals were chosen according to their technical merit and feasibility, Phase I results, as well as the experience, qualifications, and facilities of the submitting organization.
Ozark worked closely with Sciperio in the Phase I project to 3D print custom high-temperature metal traces onto high-temperature substrates. According to the company, these test coupons were printed on-site at Sciperio using an nScrypt 3Dn 450 Factory in a Tool (FiT) system outfitted with a SmartPump microdispensing tool head, Keyence laser, and in-process camera to monitor line width and other features. nScrypt’s FiT systems go beyond 3D printing to manufacture finished products, not just parts.
Ozark has even stated that it is buying its own 3Dn-Tabletop system developed by nScrypt, also outfitted with a SmartPump tool head and a surface mapping laser for conformal printing.
Bringing together integrated circuits, packaging, and wiring into a module ready for use in a harsh environment is Ozark’s specialty, and the high-temperature multi-chip package and Ozark’s design tools significantly extend the complexity of electronic systems that can function at high temperatures.
According to Ken Church, CEO of nScrypt and Sciperio: “Ozark IC is doing some amazing stuff with extreme temperature electronics. Our high-precision 3D manufacturing systems are a perfect match for their applications and the engineering expertise in Sciperio, nScrypt’s research arm, is helping to bring them across the finish line.”
The Phase II awards will provide approximately $104 million to 124 small businesses located across 31 states. NASA annually invests in U.S. small businesses with promising new technologies that can benefit space missions, as well as improve life on Earth.
“Small businesses offer innovative solutions that benefit every area of NASA and often find applications outside of the agency,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “This announcement is another step forward in NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach. The agency continues to invest in and support small businesses, as they continue to mature important technologies for future missions that can also benefit us on Earth.”
“We are encouraged by the ingenuity and creativity we’ve seen from these companies in their Phase I work,” stated Jenn Gustetic, the NASA SBIR program executive. “We have also worked hard to reduce the time selected companies wait for their first Phase II payment, knowing how critical access to capital is for our aerospace research and development firms right now. The applications of their technologies, both inside and outside of NASA, are promising, and we look forward to seeing what this next round of accelerated seed funding will do.”
Ozark has used SBIR/STTR funding to develop its technology and at the moment, it is entering manufacturing (Phase III) with several of its other product lines working at 200⁰C and 250⁰C.
With crushing atmospheric pressure and escalating temperatures that can reach more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, Venus is not the easiest place to land a probe and explore. Any landing mission’s lifespan would be cut short by the spacecraft’s electronics starting to fail after just a few hours. In fact, probe missions stemming from the US and Russia in the 1970s were able to transmit data for no more than an hour after reaching the restless surface of Venus. In 2006, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express discovered strange atmospheric features at the Venusian South Pole, as well as clouds extending up to 100 kilometers above the surface.
Overall, complex electronic systems that can operate at high temperatures and rocky mantles are necessary for space exploration, especially if NASA has a rekindled interest in Venus. As different as Venus is from Earth’s environment, many experts believe that data from the planet could help us understand our own atmosphere, and, with Ozark getting ready to develop a prototype multi-chip package for high-temperature, high-density electronic systems, long duration, up-close exploration of Venus could become a reality.
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