NASA forges new electronics that can survive 100 times longer on Venus

13 Feb 2017

Simulated hues on Venus based on colour images recorded by the Soviet Venera 13 and 14 spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL

Offering new hope of exploring our nearest planetary neighbour, NASA scientists have created new electronics that can survive the harsh surface conditions of Venus for days, rather than hours.

Compared with the surface of Mars, which we have photographed in minute detail, all the images we have of the surface of Venus amount to a few grainy images of a truly alien world.

To give a sense of how hostile Venus is, the first spacecraft to land on the planet – and, indeed, on any planet ever – was the Venera 7 craft, launched by the Soviet Union in 1970.

Following six previous missions, the craft was the first to make a soft landing, but the extreme surface conditions meant its electronics only held up for less than one hour.

This was because of the planet’s severe and extreme atmospheric conditions. Venus has an average surface temperature of nearly 500 degrees Celsius and an extremely dense, CO2-rich atmosphere that bakes any equipment sent there.

Now, scientists at NASA believe they have helped take one large step towards solving this astronomical challenge, developing new electronics that can withstand these extremes for days, rather than hours.

Venus surface

First colour panoramic view of Venus taken by Venera 13. Image: Soviet Planetary Exploration Programme/NSSDC

According to the space agency, researchers from the Glenn Research Center have developed semiconductor circuits made from extremely durable silicon carbide.

Interest in the material has ramped up significantly over the past few years, particularly within aerospace and military sectors, for its ability to withstand extremes both in temperature and voltage.

In a paper published to AIP Advances, the NASA team said it had tested two silicon carbide circuits in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER) that can accurately simulate the surface conditions of Venus.

Incredibly, the new electronics showed that a future craft sent to the planet could hold out for as many as 521 hours, 100 times longer than any previously existing electronics.

Can be used on Earth also

“We demonstrated vastly longer electrical operation with chips directly exposed – no cooling and no protective chip packaging – to a high-fidelity physical and chemical reproduction of Venus’s surface atmosphere,” said lead electronics engineer Phil Neudeck. “And both integrated circuits still worked after the end of the test.

“With further technology development, such electronics could drastically improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts, enabling the first long-duration missions to the surface of Venus.”

Aside from helping us better understand Venus, the researchers have also commented on this semiconductor’s design’s suitability for Earthly applications.

Principle investigator Gary Hunter said: “This work not only enables the potential for new science in extended Venus surface and other planetary exploration, but it also has potentially significant impact for a range of Earth-relevant applications, such as in aircraft engines to enable new capabilities, improve operations, and reduce emissions.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic