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Space Researcher Seeks Smaller Spacecraft
Space Researcher Seeks Smaller Spacecraft
1 Jun 1999
(Source: Air Force Research Laboratory)

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Air Force Research Laboratory

CONTACT: John Brownlee
PHONE: (505) 846-4704


KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. - The next time you prepare to fly off on a long business trip and want to pack just carry-on luggage, call Jim Lyke for help. He is a microsystems engineer here at the Air Force Research Laboratory's (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate and is really good at cramming a lot of stuff into small places.

One of his latest packing projects is the Advanced Instrument Controller, or AIC, now onboard NASA's Deep Space II research mission launched January 1999 and headed to Mars. More powerful than an early Apple IIe desktop computer, AIC is a multi-chip, stand-alone computer module about the size of a postage stamp and thickness of a quarter that can analyze 32 incoming data streams.

It's also tougher than woodpecker lips. It has to be. Housed inside a tiny polar lander probe, AIC will impact Mars near its south pole at a force of 30,000 g's to study subterranean soil samples and search for signs of water. Exploration results will hopefully give scientists a better picture of past changes in the Martian climate and enable them to more completely understand weather shifts on earth.

Lyke looks for ways to make space and missile subsystems smaller, lighter, more reliable, and more powerful. He supervises a small team of experts that devises high-tech ways to build and integrate a variety of miniature devices - gears, motors, and electronics - for use in space.

Because spacecraft are usually large and heavy, launch costs are high. Lyke's efforts, along with those of his commercial and university partners - General Electric, Mission Research Corporation, and the University of Colorado - to smartly design and package powerful low-mass spacecraft subsystems have become particularly important in the pursuit of affordable, reliable missions. He does this with relatively little money - this year's budget for advanced packaging research is about $2 million and comes from the contributions of several federal agencies such as NASA, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and the Defense Department.

"Primarily due to a constricted defense budget and continuing U.S. military obligations around the world, the Air Force, as well as other Defense Department agencies, must still operate within a 'do more with less' environment. This postage-stamp-size computer, weighing about three grams, literally helps enable that end," said Lyke from his no-frills office housed inside a temporary trailer.

"We are working to shrink the size of such modules even further by making their structural plastic backing slimmer, maybe down to 1/1000th of an inch. If we can shave the material thin enough, then we can stack many AIC-like modules in a space where now only one or two can fit. The net result of recessing computer electronics is less mass, less weight, but more processing ability for more complicated missions, maybe up from one gigabyte to one hundred gigabytes. Such shrinkage also drives up reliability. With less mass, there are fewer parts to fail," explained Lyke. He said he would like to see this ultra-thin multi-chip technology on a space experiment within the next five years.

In addition to reducing launch costs through weight and size cuts, Directorate scientists and engineers hope to lessen satellite design and assembly time to save additional money. Yet they also want to preserve adequate surveillance and communication payload capacities. Ultra-thin modules may help facilitate, even accelerate these ends through an innovative AFRL undertaking called multifunctional structures (MFS), or "smart skins."

MFS will replace currently separate satellite components such as wiring cables and harnesses, electronic boxes, and bulky connectors into a single, lightweight, virtually trouble-free structure that is the satellite "skin." "Furthermore, MFS will exploit smart, radiation-hardened electronics that allow different MFS panels to snap perfectly together like your child's 'LEGO' bricks," said Lyke. "None of this is currently easy, but AFRL is committed to making it routine in the future."

AIC-like multi-chips, when shaved down to ultra-thin dimensions much thinner than a sheet of paper, become flexible and might be sunken directly into the satellite skin. Such plug and play modularity, like that found today in modern desktop computers, would integrate onboard sensors, instruments, and control functions into the satellite housing itself and eliminate up to 70 percent of existing electrical cables and connectors. Manufacturing expenses will also drop through the use of low-cost composite materials and microelectronics such as those developed by Lyke's team.

"We hope that the ultimate result of this work will be lighter spacecraft and satellites that are more quickly designed and assembled and cheaper to build and launch - achievements that lower the cost of access to space and maximize taxpayer investment," said Lyke. Such advances might also find their way into high-performance consumer products such as digital cameras, camcorders, and laptop computers.

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Last Updated: 5 Jun 2001