Miniaturization—Driving the Next Generation of Space Technology

by Kevin Walker / June 11, 2024

Miniaturization in electronic design is critical for integrating more capabilities into smaller devices, particularly for the growing next-generation space technology market. This trend enables the launch of smaller, more affordable satellites due to the compact, high-quality electronic components that weigh less and occupy less space. As demand for improved size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) extends beyond traditional satellite use cases to include broadband internet connections, space applications are increasingly critical. Benchmark leverages our expertise in optimizing SWaP-C for products in communication, aerospace, and defense sectors, partnering with customers to produce miniaturized electronic solutions for satellite systems. These advanced systems offer more functionality and better performance at a lower cost than systems of the past.

The Many Challenges and Benefits of Shrinking Satellites

The growing demand for low-latency bandwidth—coupled with the ubiquity of cost-effective launch services—has prompted manufacturers to shift toward producing numerous smaller LEO satellites, favored over traditional, larger geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites, primarily for tasks such as radio relays and internet service provider (ISP) provisioning. This transition is rooted in the many benefits that smaller satellites offer.

Reliable Performance, Enhanced Functionality, and Cost Savings

Key among these benefits is their capacity to provide reliable performance and enhanced functionality despite their significantly reduced sizes compared to their predecessors. This leap in efficiency is mainly attributed to the advances in miniaturization which allow for integrating more electronic functions within these compact satellites. Smaller satellites also present a more economical option regarding launch costs since their reduced size enables a single launch vehicle to carry multiple satellites, thereby economizing space missions.

Decreased Energy Consumption

Innovative designs (e.g., disk-shaped compact satellites) have demonstrated the ability to maintain LEO altitudes as low as 200 km (124 miles) without the need for propulsion systems. This further reduces the size and weight of the satellite and curtails energy consumption.

Compact Design Advancement Through MEMS

Applying micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology further compacts the size of mechanical circuit functions (e.g., switching). As the density of systems increases and the spacing between components and transmission lines narrows, the reliance on precision lithography and high-quality substrate materials becomes more critical.

These advanced materials used in printed circuit boards (PCBs), must exhibit characteristics such as a consistent dielectric constant and low dissipation factor to minimize interference among closely spaced components. Such electrically stable circuit materials are essential to mitigate electromagnetic interference (EMI) and foster compatibility among components positioned nearby. Those that provide excellent electrical properties (along with a level of mechanical reliability suitable for space environments) are the logical choice for satellite applications. 

Thermal Management

Thermal management is also critical to ensure consistent performance and prevent component damage. Using thermally conductive materials is essential in offsetting performance variations arising from inadequate thermal dissipation. As miniaturization compacts circuit component spacing and drives circuit topologies ever smaller, the choice of circuit material becomes increasingly critical to meet the combination of stringent thermal, EMI, and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) standards.

The realization of these interrelated topics in engineering design contributes significantly to the successful miniaturization of satellite systems, paving the way for more efficient and cost-effective space missions. Despite their diminutive size, small satellites are engineered to support a broad spectrum of services, including broadcasting, communications, imaging, and navigation. Achieving such a feat, however, requires all aspects of the system design to meet or surpass stringent electrical performance and mechanical benchmarks. 

Benchmark Collaboration—Radiometer Collaboration

Compared to earlier module versions, miniaturization was critical when Benchmark collaborated with a customer to design, manufacture, and test a space-bound radiometer module for weather-data-gathering satellites. Benchmark’s engineers were able to compact the radiometer module into a smaller volume by collaborating closely with our customer and interacting as design partners. The miniaturized module serves instruments targeting reduced SWaP-C in small LEO satellites without sacrificing the performance of larger instruments and satellites. Within the satellite, the miniaturized module supports temperature measurements of the Earth’s atmosphere at millimeter wave frequencies (above 30 GHz) to aid weather predictions.

The radiometer design can best be described as a miniaturized intermediate-frequency-measurement (IFM) module. Through tight collaboration with the customer, its size was reduced compared to previous iterations while delivering performance and functionality equal to or exceeding the earlier, larger units. Installing the module in LEO satellites will expand their geographic coverage. This enables high-speed data processing (as well as reliable processing of temperature and moisture data) in response to rapidly changing atmospheric conditions for enhanced weather modeling.

The many challenges in miniaturizing complex modules (e.g., the IFM) are based on the need for thoughtfully selecting specific components, including filters which are difficult to miniaturize due to the performance limits of most semiconductor processes. As high frequency filters perform best when constructed in discrete form, they can be difficult to miniaturize, but Benchmark Lark Technology recently developed unique smaller bandpass, highpass, and lowpass filters for emerging microwave and millimeter wave communications applications. Utilizing substrate-integrated-waveguide (SIW) technology and taking advantage of smaller wavelengths at higher frequencies, filters such as the XFH and STL series filters screen passbands up to 40 GHz in surface mount technology (SMT) packages as small as 0.275 in. × 0.080 in. × 0.025 in.

Benchmark Collaboration—Keeping Time for DARPA

Miniaturization is an ongoing requirement for our customers across many markets, including our government customers. To meet these requirements, advances have been sought in the design for position, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems. In one case, the U. S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) sought improved timekeeping in space with a smaller atomic clock. These specialized clocks tend to be bulky components occupying large volumes within satellites. Since temperature variations tend to impact accuracy and performance too quickly, DARPA explored the availability of a smaller, temperature-stable atomic clock for newer satellite systems—a chip-sized atomic clock.

Benchmark’s Rochester, Minnesota facility contributed to the required miniaturization by working with DARPA as a customer and partner for several years. The resulting solution was a one-cubic-centimeter (1 cm3) package housing a vertical-cavity, surface-emitting-laser (VCSEL), a quarter-wave plate, a rubidium atomic cell, a photodetector, and added components such as heaters and a magnetic field coil to form an atomic clock for the most miniature satellites. Such compact active components will help extend the use of small satellites for enhanced GPS accuracy and support the expansion of 5G and 6G cellular wireless communications via satellite links, spanning radio frequencies (RF) through millimeter wave frequencies.

Moving Beyond Satellites

The demand for miniaturization in electronics for satellites is evident, especially as they continue to shrink in size. However, many other applications can benefit equally from miniaturized electronics. Compact electronic circuits and modules offer benefits in reduced size and weight but can also provide reduced power consumption and improved thermal management compared to larger alternatives.

Automotive electronics, for example, are not only turning to electric drive power systems in electric vehicles (EVs) but are relying more on electronics for the safety of the driver in automated driver assistance system (ADAS) equipment and elaborate processing of high-frequency signals, including millimeter wave radar signals. Autonomous EVs and ADAS-equipped vehicles are ideal examples of applications requiring increased electronic functions from smaller packages. Such large-volume, higher applications also require close attention to supply chain management to ensure that all necessary components will be available. 

The increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones for commercial and military applications, as routine as delivering goods to customers in remote locations, represents another rapidly growing market driving the need for further miniaturization of electronic products. UAVs require electronic modules designed and manufactured according to reduced SWaP-C requirements. As the number of (and use cases for) drones in flight grows, the need for reliable communications and navigation systems within those drones will grow, served by satellite-based electronic systems

Fortunately, Benchmark provides a global network of facilities with personnel skilled at delivering smaller solutions, increased functionality, and higher levels of performance. Many of these engineering skills are co-located with advanced manufacturing capabilities, facilitating the delivery of development and new product introduction (NPI), along with the necessary analytical tools to ensure the highest level of performance and reliability. 

Forecasting the Future of Miniaturization

Customers across diverse markets are seeking modern electronic solutions to continually optimize SWaP-C while enhancing reliability. As Benchmark continues to pioneer advancements in miniaturization and electronic design, we stand ready to collaborate with partners seeking to innovate and excel in their respective industries. Let’s explore how our proven expertise and advanced capabilities can help propel your business forward.

Attending the International Microwave Symposium 2024 (IMS 2024) in Washington, DC? Benchmark will be meeting with customers and eager to connect with you. Look out for our team members or complete our form to schedule a meeting. We’re excited to engage with you to discuss potential collaborations.  

Defense Miniaturization Aerospace

about the author

Kevin Walker

Kevin Walker is the Sr. Director, Technical Business Development at Benchmark. He grows Benchmark's RF, microwave, and photonics business, working closely with customers and our engineering teams. Kevin has a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and over 30 years of diverse industry experience. His experience ranges from thin film microwave circuit fabrication and high speed/microwave circuit materials, to commercial microwave circuit fabrication and assembly, implantable medical device assembly, and military microwave interconnect products.

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