ASIC by ams enables magnetic measurements in satellite-based exploration

June 08, 2015 // By Graham Prophet
Profiling the Earth’s magnetosphere, a mission by (among others) the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, the Space Research Institute (Institut für Weltraumforschung, IWF) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenshaften, ÖAW) employs a novel IC for highly accurate magnetic measurements.

Developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in co-operation with the Space Research Institute, the ASIC enables the satellites’ digital flux-gate magnetometer (DFG) to acquire highly accurate three-dimensional measurements of the magnetosphere while drawing ultra-low current. The DFG sensor iself was supplied by the University of California, Los Angeles. Operating at a resolution of 10 picoTesla, which is several thousand times more sensitive than a conventional electronic compass, the device is able to sense the smallest variations in magnetic flux.

The Fraunhofer ASIC was fabricated by the foundry division of ams on its speciality 0.35 μm CMOS (C35) process technology, which allows for the design of complex analogue/mixed-signal devices. Based on a unique process architecture, the rad-hard C35 technology is very well suited for use in space and aerospace applications.

As part of NASA’s “Magnetospheric Multiscale” mission launched in March 2015, four identically equipped satellites are performing highly accurate three-dimensional measurements of the Earth’s magnetosphere. The ambitious goal of this mission is to explore the dynamics of the magnetosphere, measuring very small variations in the Earth’s magnetic field with extreme accuracy. The research effort, spearheaded by the Space Research Institute (based in Graz, Austria), is focused on the so-called magnetic reconnection, which is a physical process in which the Earth’s magnetic energy is converted to kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration. Magnetic reconnection is one of the mechanisms responsible for the aurora, as well as for temporary disturbances in the Earth's magnetosphere.

Like all measurement instruments and equipment in satellites, the Space Research Institute’s magnetometer has to be as small and light as possible, while consuming very little power. In addition, it must offer very high accuracy under harsh conditions such as very low temperatures and radiation.

The Fraunhofer and Space Research Institute design team also made use of ams’s turnkey solutions for IC design, which include a comprehensive Process Development Kit (PDK) and IP block portfolio,