New electronics could survive conditions on Venus

Technology could make it possible for a probe to do basic science on Venus for several months or longer.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Nov 13, 2017
A new electronics system under development at NASA's Glenn Research Center (GRC) has successfully withstood simulations of surface conditions on Venus, including temperature, pressure, and chemical composition.

High-temperature electronics that use silicon carbide semiconductors (SiC) were subjected to approximately 4,000 hours of operation at temperatures of 500 degrees Celsius.

The silicon semiconductors NASA uses on spacecraft exploring solar system planets and moons cannot function at 470 degrees Celsius or higher, Venus' approximate surface temperature. This is why previous missions to the planet lasted at most several hours, during which the spacecraft was in an enclosure that protected it from the planet's extreme environment.

Currently being tested at GRC, the new electronics can operate in Venus' environment without requiring cooling systems.

In an experiment that lasted 21.7 days, conducted in April 2016, an SiC high-temperature 12-transistor ring oscillator remained stable and functional in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER), where Venus' surface conditions were simulated.

Two key core circuits required for this technology functioned over a long duration when tested in the GEER simulation.

Tests of other, similar oscillator circuits have shown they can operate in Venus-like conditions for several thousand hours. The only reason testing of these particular circuits was capped at 21 days was scientists' schedules.

Successful operation for 21 days in Venus conditions sets a new record beyond that of any previous electronics.

Begun this year, a new project titled the Long-Life In-Situ Solar System Explorer (LLISSE) will use these new electronics to design a probe capable of conducting basic science measurements on Venus' surface for several months or longer.

Other future implications of SiC electronics could include a new generation of probes to explore the solar system's gas giants and possibly Mercury's surface.

Testing on a next generation of integrated circuits that use more than 100 transistors was started last month.


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