How Do You Replace a Semiconductor in Space? 

By Deniz Civay 
Deputy Director, Aerospace and Defense, GlobalFoundries 

What does a semiconductor chip on the International Space Station have in common with a chip in your phone or car? Security, reliability, and GlobalFoundries (GF). 

GF is the most advanced semiconductor foundry in the United States with capability and accreditation to manufacture highly sensitive chips for use in defense systems on land, sea, air, and in space. Many of these chips, as well as many of the chips we manufacture for other customers in different industries, are built on GF’s 12LP platform. This technology is purpose-built to deliver high performance and power efficiency for demanding applications. 

Space certainly qualifies as a demanding application. In fact, space is the ultimate extreme environment. The low temperatures and radiation variability in space can easily cause electronics to stop functioning and fail. This can happen in a few different ways. Sometimes radiation hits the chip and causes what’s called a “single event upset.” Other times, chips fail from the long-term “total ionizing dose” that accrues on the chip.  

So back to the question in the headline: If a chip fails in space, how do you replace it? You don’t. That’s why it’s critical for these chips to be reliable, secure, and able to withstand the harsh environments of space including radiation effects and a wide range of extreme temperatures. 

The International Space Station  
Credit: NASA

Long Journey to Deep Space 

GF’s 12LP platform is a 3D FinFET technology used for many chip designs, each implementing a wide range of features and capabilities for different end uses. For space applications such as satellites, International Space Station systems, or rovers used on Mars, the chips are customized with Radiation Hardened by Design (RHBD) features. This RHBD work is done by GF ecosystem partners and other companies that focus on semiconductor design, as well as by GF customers that produce satellites and their subsystems, to ensure the chips can withstand the harsh environment of space. RHBD introduces techniques such as design redundancy with spatial positioning awareness to ensure the chip will not fail during the timeframe it’s needed. The time a chip must perform depends upon the use lifetime, for example how far out into space the chip is traveling and how long that journey will take. 

There are GF-made chips in systems in low-earth orbit (LEO), geosynchronous orbit (GEO), and deep space. More than 3,000 satellites are currently in LEO, whereas there are about 5,000 satellites further out in GEO. The further away from the Earth’s surface, the harsher the environment. GF 12LP semiconductors with RHBD are one of the few chips that meet the stringent requirements for the long journey to deep space. 

Icy cliffs at the Martain North Pole as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter 
Credit: NASA

Dual-Use Technologies 

GF delivers high-volume manufacturing (HVM) production to achieve economies of scale. In other words, we make a lot of the same type of chip at once – a process that is much easier said than done and requires innovation, technical know-how, and a world-class team of engineers and technicians. But there are billions more AI servers, phones and cars than satellites, and trillions more chips on Earth than in space.  

So why does GF even make chips for space? And how does this work with HVM? 

We focus on what are called “dual-use” technologies for the needs of our aerospace and defense customers. GF manufactures smaller batches of chips for satellites or other applications, which other companies have customized with RHBD to make them suitable for space. We also aggressively partner with our customers and others to innovate on new ways of customizing these (pre-RHBD) chips, and adding new features, to suit the needs of larger commercial markets such as smartphones or automobiles. Dual-use technologies help ensure the U.S. has the most secure and advanced chips in satellites as well as cars, datacenters, cell phone towers, and many other technologies, with the best economics. 

Any chip’s space performance can be improved with RHBD, however some chips are better suited than others. GF has several technologies that work particularly well with RHBD – including our 12LP, 22FDX and 45CMOS platforms – and enable customers to optimize the performance, power, and size of chips to meet the needs of their specific applications. GF has many ecosystem partners that implement RHBD to create these kinds of chips, and some customers take advantage of this and use the capability to put chips in space.

Close-up of GF-made semiconductors 

As I mentioned above, GF is the most advanced semiconductor foundry in the U.S. with capability and accreditation to manufacture highly sensitive chips for use in many of the nation’s mission-critical aerospace and defense applications. GF chips are produced using the highest standard of security. The reliability of these uncompromised chips, in turn, helps to ensure U.S. advancements in space are secure. This includes the GF 12LP chips headed into the vast expanse of space, and leads us back to the original question we set out to answer: 

Q: How do you replace a semiconductor in space?  

A: You don’t. And if you use GF chips that have been designed and manufactured to weather the harsh environment and challenges of space, you won’t need to.  

Dr. Deniz Civay leads the Harsh Environment battleground at GF with the goal of ensuring the most secure onshore advanced technologies for deep space and defense products. She’s deputy director of GF’s aerospace and defense business strategy team. When she started at GF 12 years ago, she worked in R&D inventing novel technologies resulting in 10 patents and many papers. She is PMP certified and holds a Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.