Radiation-tolerant power electronics key to filling gaps in satellite infrastructure

The current satellite communications infrastructure is insufficient to meet the inexhaustible global demand for highly reliable, high-speed broadband connections. This shortcoming is driving the rapid design, development and deployment of constellations of communication satellites in low and medium orbits. These constellations will orbit the planet, bringing seamless broadband connectivity to every corner of the planet, a promise that terrestrial solutions simply cannot deliver.

Boeing’s O3b program takes a modular approach to low-Earth orbit satellite needs

The current satellite communications infrastructure is insufficient to meet the inexhaustible global demand for highly reliable, high-speed broadband connections. This shortcoming is driving the rapid design, development and deployment of constellations of communication satellites in low and medium orbits. These constellations will orbit the planet, bringing seamless broadband connectivity to every corner of the planet, a promise that terrestrial solutions simply cannot deliver.

Boeing is one of several OEMs approved by the Federal Communications Commission to design, manufacture and launch satellites in low and medium orbits. The Boeing O3b project aims to provide broadband connectivity to the “other 3 billion people” (O3b) who have limited or no access to high-speed internet at all. An important challenge in the design of low-Earth orbit satellites such as O3b is to provide the power needed to support high-power advanced communication circuits without increasing the size and weight of the Power Delivery Network (PDN). To address this challenge, power solutions need to be highly flexible and scalable to accommodate all unforeseen design changes or modifications in the future. Fast time-to-market is critical to keeping projects on schedule due to accelerated deployment schedules.

space survival

Space is an unforgiving environment full of dangers, especially for Electronic components, for a number of reasons, including drastic temperature changes, vibration, and radiation exposure. But the level of radiation protection required depends on the orbit in which the satellite operates. Higher orbiting geostationary satellites (GEOs) require radiation-hardened components because they lie outside the Van Allen radiation belts and are therefore exposed to more radiant radiation. The expected operational lifetime of GEO satellites is 3 to 4 times longer than that of satellites in low and medium orbits, which also increases the duration of radiation exposure. Low and medium orbit satellites operate in lower orbits within the Van Allen radiation belts and have less radiation exposure, so radiation-tolerant components are sufficient. Some would argue that commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products are sufficient for low-Earth-orbit satellite operation, but even at low radiance levels, this is risky. To be prudent, some degree of radiation protection is required to ensure proper operation and duty cycle of the satellite. After all, if that $0.25 COTS part fails in space, rendering a multimillion-dollar satellite inoperable, there’s no way we could send a maintenance technician to fix it.

Radiation tolerant solution for high power density

As an alternative to using COTS power solutions, radiation-tolerant modular power supply solutions not only provide radiation protection, but also provide the industry’s highest power density. In addition, the solution is extremely flexible and scalable in its architecture and implementation (Figure 1).

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Radiation-tolerant power electronics key to filling gaps in satellite infrastructure
Figure 1: Vicor module and PDN schematic showing ease of implementation.

Vicor worked closely with Boeing on the O3b project, resulting in a high-performance solution. Vicor’s Radiation Hardened DC-DC Converter Power Modules are housed in Vicor’s newest electroplated SM-ChiP™ package and are capable of powering low voltage ASICs up to 300V from a nominal 100V supply. Immunity against single-event flipping is achieved using a redundant architecture in each module, where two identical parallel supply chains with fault-tolerant control ICs are housed in a unified high-density SM-ChiP™ package (Figure 2).

Radiation-tolerant power electronics key to filling gaps in satellite infrastructure
Figure 2: Dual power supply chain fault-tolerant design.

Advanced communication satellites require high power density and low noise. Vicor’s soft-switching high frequency ZCS/ZVS lowers the power system noise floor, reducing filtering requirements while achieving signal integrity and overall system performance with the necessary high reliability.

The complete solution from power to point of load consists of four SM-ChiPs: a BCM3423 (100V nominal, 300W K = 1/3 busbar converter in a 34 x 23 mm package), a PRM2919 (33V nominal 200W voltage regulator in a 29 x 19 mm package) and two VTM2919 current multipliers (one with K = 1/32 at 150A, the output voltage is 0.8V; one at K = 1/8 at 50A, the output voltage is 3.3V). The solution powers the ASIC directly from a 100V supply, uses minimal external components, and operates with low noise.

All modules are packaged in Vicor’s high density SM-ChiP package and support BGA (Ball Grid Array) connections. The working temperature of ChiP is -30 ~ 125°C.

The innovations needed to enable a new generation of ‘new space’ performance

There are some key differences between discrete power solutions and modular power solutions. To achieve O3b’s extremely challenging goals, the modular approach excels in several important areas. For more details supporting the conclusions shown in the table, please read the full PDN white paper.

Radiation-tolerant power electronics key to filling gaps in satellite infrastructure

Radiation-tolerant power electronics key to filling gaps in satellite infrastructure
Rob Russell
Vice President of Vicor Satellite Business Unit

Rob Russell, Vice President of Satellite Business Development, has been with Vicor for more than 10 years in various roles in strategic marketing, product marketing, and business development. Rob Russell has over 29 years of extensive sales and marketing experience in the electronics industry. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in business administration. Before joining Vicor, he was with Power-One as Vice President of Product Marketing and Director of Global Strategic Sales.

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