NASA bakes Venus-proof electronics

Previous Venus probes hardly lasted an hour. This stuff survived three weeks before the boffins lost their lab booking

NASA boffins have found a way to make electronics that can survive on the surface of Venus, at least for a few weeks

Venus is a hell-planet. It's about 460°C (860°F) on the surface. Atmospheric pressure is about 9.3 Megapascals, 93 times Earth's air pressure. Some clouds are rich in sulphur dioxide, which can produce rain of sulphuric acid. Winds are fierce and constant in the high atmosphere.

All of which adds up to make Venus a very tricky place to land a probe, never mind keep one running for any length of time. We know this because humanity has tried and even the most successful attempts, like Russia's Venera 13 mission, survived for just 127 minutes before instruments in their pressure vessels succumbed.

Spending a few hundred million dollars on a Venus probe that lasts two hours would probably generate an @POTUS Tweet to the effect that “NASA losers waste money on Venus. BAD! Ivanka's handbag would last longer!”

Which NASA has known for years. It's also known that tougher electronics are worth exploring because pressure vessels are bulky, heavy and proven to fail. If we're going to send more instruments to Venus, the theory goes, it needs to be able to survive in a craft freed of the need for a hulking pressure vessel.

The results of those efforts, detailed in an AIP Advances paper titled Prolonged silicon carbide integrated circuit operation in Venus surface atmospheric conditions, explains that silicon carbide (4H-SiC) integrated circuits in ceramic packages have “consistently functioned for more than 1000 hours at 500 °C in Earth-atmosphere oven-testing.” The authors felt those results made 4H-SiC a promising candidate for use on Venus, so cooked up some simple ring oscillator circuits and subjected them “a high-fidelity physical and chemical reproduction of Venus’ surface atmosphere.”

The result? “ 521 hours (21.7 days) of simulated Venus surface conditions testing time were accumulated before facility scheduling forced test conclusion.” Which sounds to El Reg like the chips were still going strong when the authors were booted out of their lab.

The paper's authors, who work at the space agency's Glenn Centre, say the research is very promising not just for Venus, but as a way to put electronics in places where they cannot currently survive, such as jet engines. Which will mean yet more Internet of Things hype about the vast amount of data collected by commercial aircraft. ®


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