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Large Satellite Systems Get a Leg Up With Miniaturized Chips

October 17, 2023 by Jake Hertz

Here, you'll find a roundup of some ways companies are advancing satellite communication technology while keeping precious payload space at a minimum.

Area and weight savings are crucial design considerations in fields like aerospace, where every gram of payload is extremely costly to deploy. To this end, the satellite industry has been trekking onward with the ongoing trend of electronics miniaturization.

 

NASA is exploring the use of laser-based communication systems in space

NASA is exploring the use of laser-based communication systems in space. Image used courtesy of NASA
 

In this piece, we’ll take a look at some of the notable developments in IC miniaturization for satellite applications that were annonuced in late summer. 

 

U-blox Unveils First Multi-Mode Cellular and Satellite Module

U-blox has recently introduced its first multi-mode cellular and satellite IoT module, the SARA-S520M10L. Based on the U-blox UBX-S52 chipset, this module is designed for ORBCOMM satellite connectivity and cellular terrestrial networks. It's also the first U-blox cellular module compliant with the ORBCOMM IDP protocol. 

 

The u-blox SARA-S520M10L

The U-blox SARA-S520M10L. Image used courtesy of U-blox
 

With dimensions of 16.0 x 26.0 x 2.2 mm and a weight of less than 3 grams, the SARA-S520M10L’s 96-pin LGA footprint is designed for compactness without compromising on functionality. For low-power operation, the device features an ultra-low power-saving mode (PSM) current consumption of just 1 µA and an extended discontinuous reception (eDRX) mode current consumption of 180 µA. The LTE Cat M1 and Cat NB2 offer a connected mode current consumption of 195 mA and 135 mA at 23 dBm, respectively.

In terms of data rates, the module supports LTE Cat M1 with 588 kb/s download and 1200 kb/s upload speeds and LTE Cat NB2 with 125 kb/s download and 140 kb/s upload speeds. It employs the IDP satellite protocol and operates in the L-band with a satellite power class of 33 dBm.

 

NASA's ILLUMA-T: Laser Communications from Space

NASA recently announced that starting in 2023, the organization will be demonstrating its first end-to-end laser relay system.

Specifically, NASA will be launching the Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) to the International Space Station (ISS). Working in conjunction with the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which was launched in 2021, ILLUMA-T will form a laser-based optical link to facilitate higher data rate communication with earth. Communicating directly with the LCRD, ILLUMA-T will support data transmission at a rate of 1.244 Gbps and data download at a rate of 52 Mbps. The LCRD will then relay the communication directly back to Earth.

 

Working principle of the ILLUMA-T communication systems

Working principle of the ILLUMA-T communication systems. Image used courtesy of NASA
 

According to NASA, laser communications will be used to transmit images and videos back to Earth. With faster data rates and less power consumption than conventional satellite communications, NASA designed the laser-based system to revolutionize space communications. 

 

Zero-Error Systems Raises $7.5M

Singapore-based startup Zero-Error Systems (ZES) recently secured a significant $7.5M in Series A funding, elevating its total capital to around $10M. ZES is best known for its radiation-hardened integrated circuit IP for satellite and space applications. 

One of the company’s notable solutions is its Radiation-Hardened By Design (RHBD) technology, a family of IC library cells that can achieve ultra-low soft-error (ULSE) while ensuring low power, delay, and area requirements. This technology is complemented by ZES's Low Dropout Adjustable Power (LDAP) solutions, which feature rapid response times of less than 1 µs. ZES claims its LDAP portfolio is completely immune to current drift due to aging and total ionizing dose. Both of these solutions are built for applications such as low-earth orbit satellites and deep space travel.

The company also offers power management solutions said to achieve over 90% power efficiency in both active and sleep modes. These solutions, though designed for space missions, can also be useful for battery-powered devices, electric vehicle charging, and renewable energy storage systems. The company also offers Reliability Testing solutions that help customers test their designs for radiation vulnerability and total ionizing dose. ZES's technology is already operational in three Japanese satellites and one European satellite.