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February 9, 2017

NASA’s new computer chip could survive three weeks on Venus

Despite actually being closer to us than Mars, Venus has gotten relatively little attention as a potential research target simply because the extremely hot conditions on the planet have been more than our current computer technology could handle for a prolonged period of time

However, according to Gizmodo and Ars Technica, that could soon change, as a team of NASA researchers has reportedly developed a new type of chip that, when tested in a high-temperature, high-pressure environment similar to that found on Venus, managed to function normally for up to three weeks without the benefit of any cooling technology or protective shielding.

circuit venus hardened

The circuit before and after testing (Credit: NASA)

That’s a big deal, as the longest that any man-made spacecraft has been able to survive Venus’s harsh 870-plus degree Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius) heat and atmospheric pressure levels 90 times those found on Earth is 127 minutes, set by Russian lander Venera 13 back in 1981.

As previously reported by Forbes, NASA is considering launching a rover to Venus as soon as the year 2023, but in order for that to happen, they need a computer chip capable of working for longer than the run-time of a summer popcorn flick. Now, researchers at the US space agency’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland appear to be close to delivering just such a chip.

Still work to be done before the circuits are usable

As they reported in a recent edition of the journal AIP Advances, electronics engineer Philip Neudeck and his colleagues created integrated circuits made from silicon carbide that they said lasted “vastly longer” than other chips when “directly exposed... to a high-fidelity physical and chemical reproduction of Venus’ surface atmosphere.”

“This represents more than 100-fold extension of demonstrated Venus environment electronics durability,” they added. With continued work, they believe that the technology “could drastically improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts” and could make long-duration missions to the planet’s surface feasible.

That’s good news, because as Gizmodo pointed out, there’s a lot about Venus that scientists on Earth find intriguing. For example, its geological processes and greenhouse gas-rich atmosphere may shed new light on similar processes on our own planet. But, as Neudeck noted, it will likely be a long time before the circuits are usable, as they currently contain just 24 transistors – far less than those found in modern computers. A 100 transistor version is on the way, though.

Furthermore, not only does the chip need to be improved, but the rest of the rover still needs to be completed – something that Ars Technica noted will be no easy task, given the many moving parts that will all have to be able to survive the conditions on Venus. As Neudeck said, however, “no one has ever made circuits run in this environment at this temperature for this long,” which means that the mission is one step closer to becoming a reality.

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Image credit: Venera program