The Market is Booming due to New Space Players

The entire market is transitioning towards commercial chips, enabling people to utilize them without being confined to traditional space-grade chips.

Punam Singh
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Dr Wei Shu, Chief Technology Officer, Zero Error Systems (ZES)

With a focus on commercialising space technology, space exploration and satellite technology are transitioning from the traditional "Old Space" paradigms to the dynamic, cost-effective, and reliable realm of "New Space." Adopting commercial off-the-shelf components, innovative engineering approaches and a burgeoning market driven by private ventures are key accelerators of this shift.


With a decade of research expertise in semiconductor design for space applications, Zero Error Systems (ZES) is seizing the pivotal moment to bridge the gap between conventional and commercial electronics. In an exclusive interview, ZES Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Dr Wei Shu uncovered how advancements in semiconductor technology, particularly Radiation-Hardened by Design (RHBD) devices, are revolutionising the space sector.


What are ‘Old Space’ and ‘New Space,’ and what do these terms mean?


Dr Wei Shu: ‘Old Space’ refers to the conventional space grid, where only government agencies like NASA, ESA, and others could send satellites in the past. They had very expensive programmes that cost billions. And why do these programmes cost billions? Because the launch costs, including the material and satellite electronics, are very high. For instance, Old Space uses the same chips as New Space, but while the latter utilises commercially available chips, Old Space still uses expensive ones. The price difference for the same functionality can range from USD 1,000 to USD 10,000. This also means that a chip that costs USD 1 commercially could cost USD 1,000 in the space grid. In Old Space, expensive chips are used, typically two to three generations behind in performance and often subject to export control regulations.

People in New Space do not come from conventional agencies, so they view the market differently. They aim to use as many commercial components as possible for their satellites, significantly reducing costs. Additionally, thanks to companies like SpaceX, launching costs have decreased. As a result, the entire business and market are booming due to the lower costs of new space players.

What are the key differences between traditional space exploration methods and the innovations introduced in New Space?


Dr Wei Shu: Smartphones like the iPhone represent the most advanced technology on Earth: small, low-power, and high-computing capabilities. Comparing the chips used in old space satellites to these is like comparing chips from 20 years ago, just like there were no iPhones 20 years ago. This illustrates the difference in technological advancement.

Given the performance limitations of older semiconductor technology, chips from 20 years ago can only achieve so much. However, with advanced chips, you can now engage in a wide range of advanced applications, including imaging and communication, which were impossible in the past.

Can you explain the engineering approach behind radiation-hardened-by-design (RHBD) devices and their significance in the space technology sector?


Dr Wei Shu: Due to the specific requirements of the space environment and radiation exposure, some satellites require application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) design. ASIC involves designing the chip to meet certain functions not found in commercial devices. There are two approaches to tackling this problem.

One approach is called radiation-hardened by process, which is a traditional method. We have to rely on a foundry that produces radiation-hardening processes. In the past, entities like NASA heavily utilised this process, especially during programmes like the moon missions. However, nowadays, there are very few foundries worldwide offering this process. Why? Because these processes are outdated and do not yield high-performance chips.

"We design our chips using proprietary technology circuits to harden them, ensuring low process costs and state-of-the-art performance."


Secondly, the volume of space applications is very low, making it challenging to sustain such foundries. The costs associated with maintaining them are very high. This is one of the reasons why conventional space-grade semiconductors are very expensive. Therefore, we are opting for radiation-hardened by design, which means we do not rely on the process. Instead, we utilise commercial payload processes.

We can utilise TSMC or Global Foundry processes, which are very cost-effective. We design our chips using proprietary technology circuits to harden them, ensuring low process costs and state-of-the-art performance.

What cost-effective and reliable electronic solutions does RHBD offer to space ventures?


Dr Wei Shu: In terms of cost, because they use commercially available processes, the cost is certainly low. Of course, there are some overheads when you design a circuit using the RHBD approach compared to the commercial approach. So, there are some overheads in terms of silicon, but with our technique, our RHBD solution, the overheads are much lower than whatever state-of-the-art options exist in the market. Therefore, the cost is lower.

Reliability is primarily based on semiconductors. Semiconductor processes are now very reliable; for example, automotive-grade chips are highly reliable. Therefore, using these semiconductors or semiconductor parts in space applications is not an issue. However, the vulnerability lies in the packaging process. That is why we have a strict qualification process for semiconductors in the assembled chips. We undergo rigorous qualification and screening of all parts to ensure that only the good ones are selected and sold.

How can RHBD mitigate the risks associated with space debris and enhance the long-term viability of space operations?


Dr Wei Shu: When discussing debris, it essentially refers to the reliability or lifetime of satellites, right? Nowadays, satellites are being launched almost every day. However, many of these satellites have very short lifetimes in space. Universities are also sending CubeSats into space, which is 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres in size.

Some companies also send commercial CubeSats into space. These CubeSats can typically only survive in space for around six months to one and a half years. So why do they do that? Because CubeSats are small and the launch costs are low. However, their short lifetimes in space pose a risk of contributing to space debris.

After one and a half years, these satellites cease functioning and become space debris, gradually falling back into Earth’s atmosphere. This process may generate additional debris. Therefore, the satellite’s lifespan directly correlates with the generation of space debris. This is where our RHBD approach and our value proposition come in. By protecting against radiation and enhancing the reliability of satellites, we aim to extend their lifespan in space. In other words, our approach helps reduce space debris.

In the long term, who will be the key players in the space technology industry, and what positioning does India hold from a global perspective?

Dr Wei Shu: We are collaborating with Indian partners and have a distributor, the Indian Space Agency, at various centres, including Adelaide and others. However, you will notice that the US and Russia have traditionally dominated these technologies, which may not hold for the new space market. In the New Space sector, you are no longer limited by traditional space-grade electronics. You can utilise commercial chips and develop applications using them.

Nowadays, the entire market is transitioning towards using commercial chips. We emphasise addressing this gap, enabling people to utilise them without being confined to traditional space-grade chips. They can freely access commercially available chips without export control limitations, and we safeguard them from potential invasions. This innovation opens up significant growth opportunities for the entire market.