Daniel Baker, director of the space weather laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder, warned that “for better or for worse, our space systems are moving toward commercial parts rather than radiation-hardened” components. Hence, “the changing nature of the electronics industry is moving us toward greater vulnerability in space.”
A looming problem is the susceptibility of space electronics to “deep dielectric charging” in which high-energy electrons in the Earth’s magnetosphere can penetrate shielding and bury themselves in dielectric materials. If a dielectric material used to make an electronic component is “leaky,” a charge can build up and discharge, causing satellite damage or failures.
Using more shielding, or what Baker called a “brute force approach,” usually doesn’t work. Instead, he advocated that spacecraft designers focus early on the physics on the dielectric materials, an approach that would allow them to “choose wisely [while] going in with your eyes open.” Designers also need to consider how dielectric materials used in satellite electronics change over time.
On the ground, smart grids designed to add intelligence to the power grid also will be vulnerable to the effects of space weather. As recent power outages in the Midwest and East Coast have shown, power disruptions can create havoc. A disruption of smart grids “could really be bad for society,” Baker warned, especially one as interconnected as ours.
Baker called “hardening” the smart grid the “poster child” for the age of space weather.
Indeed, the greater our reliance on networks, the more vulnerable we become to effects of space weather. A 2008 National Research Council report from a space weather panel chaired by Baker warned that given “the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures in modern society, the impacts of severe space weather can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term as well as long-term collateral socioeconomic disruptions.”
Hence, agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are now taking the effects of space weather into account in their forecasting models. Meanwhile, scientists like Baker are trying to learn as much as possible about the impact of space weather before the solar maximum hits Earth. To that end, NASA launched a pair of space probes in August to study space weather.
The take away here is that chip designers, especially hi-rel chip designers, are going to have to take the effects of solar flares in space into consideration when using vulnerable low power materials. And they will have to factor for how these materials might degrade over time.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.