NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter made headlines in April after successfully completing the first powered controlled flight by an aircraft on a planet besides Earth. Ingenuity’s tremendous success demonstrates the continuing evolution of NASA’s Risk Management processes for infusing commercial technologies into space missions. While rightly described as a “high-risk, high-reward” technology demonstration, Ingenuity is completely based on well-reasoned and disciplined engineering analysis and methodical risk identification and mitigation schemes.
Part of this risk process included ensuring that Ingenuity’s electronics and materials perform to their design specifications after being exposed to the space radiation environment on Mars. This process is known as Radiation Hardness Assurance (RHA) and has been one of the NASA Electronic Parts and Packaging (NEPP) Program’s key charter activities for many years as a part of its technology assurance leadership role for NASA. A vast majority of Ingenuity is made up of commercial parts, which provides a challenge when it comes to RHA.
“There is such a demand for commercial parts in all space missions, and it’s becoming almost impossible to make radiation-hardened parts because it’s so expensive,” said Doug Sheldon, Assurance Technology Program Office program manager and NEPP senior staff member at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “The NEPP Program, along with the NESC [NASA Engineering Safety Center], are spending a lot of effort to find how to address the use of commercial electronics in space. That’s radiation, Quality and Reliability. So there’s quite a bit of effort going into commercial electronics, and Ingenuity is just one example.”
Ingenuity’s navigation board is based on a commercial cell phone System on a Chip (SoC) device developed by Qualcomm. This provided an RHA challenge, as devices like this require low-latency, high-performance Low Power Double Data Rate 3 memory to be located physically on top of the SoC. Industry typically develops components to be more compact and slimmer to meet the demands of ever more powerful and capable phones while maintaining the same size and weight, and in doing so, companies either stack the packages of different devices or integrate them all into one plastic package so that that line of sight of one individual device becomes almost non-existent.
“Often we need the direct line of sight to the component itself for radiation hardness testing,” said Ed Wyrwas, lead electrical engineer and NEPP senior staff member at Goddard Space Flight Center. “So we’ve essentially had to reinvent the wheel to apply different techniques — called inventions some would say. Sometimes we can work our magic with very fine machining or desoldering to remove parts to get to it. There are a lot of challenges at play.”
The NEPP Program funds development of methodologies for screening commercial parts. It helped lay the RHA foundation for successfully operating these types of technologies in space, enabling the Science Mission Directorate and the JPL team to achieve the first powered flight on another planetary body in the solar system.
“We apply a lot of our own engineering skillsets, tools that are developed within our own institution — so within Goddard for me and within JPL for Steve [Guertin] — and what we try to do is collaborate across centers through NEPP in order to accomplish this common goal, which is standardized testing of diverse devices for an overall generic processor enclave,” said Wyrwas.
The NEPP Program continues to make significant technology assurance investments in a wide range of both follow-on cell phone processors as well other high-performance, computationally-centric devices like Graphics Processing Units, Neuromorphic Processors and Field Programmable Gate Arrays. Continually evolving risk methodologies and practices specifically address the constantly changing commercial technology landscape.
“This opens up immense amounts of corporate research and development for possible space applications that the government does not have to pay for,” said Sheldon. “All the effort that companies like Qualcomm, NVIDIA and Intel are putting into their chips to enable the next generation cellphone or Tesla car, the government doesn’t have to fund that infrastructure or product development. So we would like to use these extremely powerful, unique commercial chips in space.”
“This is taking a toolbox with maybe two tools in it to just saying the world is your toolbox” said Wyrwas. “The hard part is proving to someone or showing the justification that they should adopt something new instead of doing it the proven way. It’s like going down a different path in the woods — do you go over the beaten-down grass path or do you venture off a different way? While it’s unproven, it does not mean it may not be a better way.”
The NEPP Program remains uniquely positioned to provide both the characterization as well as next step assurance practices to continue to meet the needs of groundbreaking missions like Ingenuity.