It’s No Vacation for Chips on Mars

GF-made essential chips are at the forefront of space exploration, providing the capabilities, quality, security, and reliability needed to undertake critical missions in the harsh environment of space 

By Deniz Civay  
Deputy Director, Aerospace and Defense, GlobalFoundries 

Space tourism is a budding industry, and it’s easy to imagine that one day visitors may be welcome aboard an international space hotel. Vacation planning could take on a whole new vertical, catching a rocket to a space hotel that shares an orbit near the International Space Station (ISS). However, the thermosphere – the layer of Earth’s atmosphere where the ISS is located – is not what most of us would consider a vacation destination. 

Temperatures in the thermosphere fluctuate from an unfathomably cold -160°C to an oven like 80°C. A million pieces of marble-sized space debris cruise along at 17,500 mph. Not to mention ionospheric plasma, the vacuum’s complete lack of air, and the constant barrage of radiation. You get the idea: the thermosphere is no place for a picnic. 

An important part of my job at GlobalFoundries (GF) is helping companies that manufacture spacecraft ensure the semiconductors in their systems are able to withstand the harsh environments on Earth, in the thermosphere, and beyond. At a recent conference, I asked a deep space expert about how we could showcase the GF-made chips reliable performance on the ISS, and it prompted a laugh.

“You don’t want to highlight that your chips are on the International Space Station. That environment is nothing,” he said. “GF chips have been to Mars. To the moons of Jupiter. Now those are harsh environments.” 

GF chips are critical to our advancement in space exploration. GF-made semiconductors aren’t just in your phones, smart speakers, and automobiles, they’re also in incredibly sophisticated space systems. Chips made in GF’s Vermont facility are on the James Webb Telescope. Chips made in GF’s Malta, New York, facility are on their way to Mars, past the moons of Jupiter, and will head even further into deep space. 

Images of Jupiter with enhanced color taken by the James Webb Telescope, released by NASA in 2022. [credit: NASA]

This is no small feat, as the environment gets harsher and more challenging the further away from Earth you get. Chips in space systems need to be robust, reliable, power efficient, and enable very specific capabilities from taking images, to receiving and transmitting information, to performing other tasks and functions. It is also critical these chips are securely manufactured and perform exactly as intended. 

GF is a manufacturing leader in both these realms: chips that are secure and uncompromised, and can withstand the rigors of space. 

In terms of security, GF’s U.S. facilities, people, and processes are accredited by the Department of Defense to the highest level, Trusted Supplier Category 1A, which implements proven stringent security measures to protect sensitive information and manufacture chips with the highest levels of integrity to ensure they are uncompromised. GF additionally complies with strict export controls necessary to protect the information and chips being manufactured for this important sector.  

To survive in the harsh environment of space, chips must be hardened to withstand the environment. There are two primary ways to harden a chip to ensure it can survive in space; radiation hardening by design (RHBD) and radiation hardening by process (RHBP). RHBD is managed by defense companies who are building the satellite, rocket or other product to be launched into space. They achieve RHBD though redundancy and charge dissipation mitigation, among other techniques and strategies.  

A close-up of GF-made essential semiconductors on a newly manufactured wafer.

RHBP involves a change to the manufacturing process of a chip to ensure it can survive in space.  RHBD and RHBP are two different methods to achieve the same goal of enabling electronics to function reliably in space. 

It requires no shortage of time, brain power, precision, and care to manufacture chips the size of a postage stamp that can withstand a trip to the ISS, Mars, Jupiter, and beyond. But it never ceases to amaze me both the kinds of innovations that semiconductors enable, and the countless wonders that space science and space technology are uncovering.  

Next time you see the latest breathtaking James Webb Telescope images, or a new scientific observation about Mars or Jupiter, or watch a video of astronauts aboard the ISS, remember that GF-made chips are deep within those systems and make it all possible. 

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.