Chips Rugged Enough for Venus
February 10, 2017
A team of scientists at NASA’s Glenn
Research Center in Cleveland recently completed a technology
demonstration that could enable new scientific missions to the surface
of Venus. The team demonstrated the first prolonged operation of
electronics in the harsh conditions found on Venus.
“With further technology development, such electronics could drastically
improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts, enabling the first
long-duration missions to the surface of Venus,” said Phil Neudeck, lead
electronics engineer for this work.
circuit before (above) and after (below) testing in Venus atmospheric
Current Venus landers can only operate on the planet’s surface for a few
hours due to the extreme atmospheric conditions. The surface temperature
on Venus is nearly 860 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than most
ovens, and the planet has a high-pressure carbon dioxide atmosphere.
Because commercial electronics don’t work in this environment, the
electronics on past Venus landers have been protected by thermal and
pressure-resistant vessels. These vessels only last a few hours, and
they add substantial mass and expense to a mission.
To overcome these challenges, the Glenn team developed and implemented
extremely durable silicon carbide semiconductor integrated circuits.
They then electrically tested two of these integrated circuits in the
Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER), which can precisely simulate the
conditions expected on Venus’ surface. The circuits withstood the Venus
surface temperature and atmospheric conditions for 521 hours – operating
more than 100 times longer than previously demonstrated Venus mission
“We demonstrated vastly longer electrical operation with chips directly
exposed -- no cooling and no protective chip packaging -- to a
high-fidelity physical and chemical reproduction of Venus’ surface
atmosphere,” Neudeck said. “And both integrated circuits still worked
after the end of the test.”
Earlier this year, the team
demonstrated nearly identical silicon carbide integrated circuits for
more than 1,000 hours at 900 degrees Fahrenheit in Earth-atmosphere oven
testing. The integrated circuits were originally designed to operate in
hot regions of fuel-efficient aircraft engines.
work not only enables the potential for new science in extended Venus
surface and other planetary exploration, but it also has potentially
significant impact for a range of Earth relevant applications, such as
in aircraft engines to enable new capabilities, improve operations, and
reduce emissions,” said Gary Hunter, principle investigator for Venus
surface electronics development.
Results of the test are detailed in a peer-reviewed journal article
titled “Prolonged silicon carbide integrated circuit operation in Venus
surface atmospheric conditions,” which was published in AIP Advances.