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The considerable progress on extreme satellite miniaturisation made by Maltese researchers from the University of Malta’s Astrionics Research Group has been described as “remarkable” by several top experts at the French space agency. This is especially so when considering it is running on an almost negligible budget.
Work on tiny circuit boards that make up satellites conducted by electronic engineering research students Glenn Zammit, Matthew Sammut, Oliver Vassallo and Darren Debattista are currently being tested at the Centre National D’Études Spatiales (CNES) facility in Toulouse, France.
In a one-year-long collaboration with the University group, CNES is using particle accelerators to bombard the Maltese researchers’ tiny circuit boards with high-energy protons and heavy ions at several tens of thousands of kilometres per second in order to evaluate various novel protective mechanisms the researchers implemented to allow the circuits to survive the upsets caused by such impacts.
The collaboration forms part of a joint project called Resolute funded by a special Malta Council for Science and Technology-CNES bilateral programme. Through the programme, the MCST awarded €50,000 to the Astrionics Research Group to further study the reliability prospects of Malta’s first satellite systems, and take the ambitious project to the next level. The Maltese work on extreme satellite miniaturisation adds a new dimension to the satellite work taking place at CNES. It complements the growing drive for smaller, cheaper and faster space missions that leave less impact in the orbital space debris field surrounding the planet, and are therefore more sustainable. Commercial off-the-shelf devices are the way forward for low-cost missions, but their sensitivity to radiation represents challenges.
The Maltese work on extreme satellite miniaturisation adds a new dimension to the satellite work taking place at CNES
Dr Marc Anthony Azzopardi who recently visited CNES research facilities in Toulouse to kick-off the collaboration said:
“The facilities in Toulouse house some of the world’s most advanced electronics failure analysis equipment. Here one is able to edit circuits on chips to repair or change their behaviour—all done at sub-micrometre pinpoint accuracy.
“We can also inject temporary faults at will into any of the countless transistors found on modern microprocessors, in order to assess their individual behaviour in the harsh space environment.
“Radiation in the Van-Allen Belts is our primary concern. Impact from subatomic particles, when our satellites cross the lower end of these belts, can cause serious disruptions and even permanent damage inside modern electronic devices,” added Dr Azzopardi.
CNES is the world’s second largest space agency with a budget of €2.423 billion in 2019. It has grown into the largest contributor to the European space research establishment and is well-known for designing the Ariane 5 European heavy-lift launch vehicle, as well as jointly running the European Space Port at Kourou in the French Guiana.