- Large-scale chip testing in orbit is crucial for China’s space ambitions
- China believes its biggest competitive pressure no longer comes from Nasa but from private space companies, represented by SpaceX
According to scientists directly involved in China’s extraterrestrial chip programme, China’s Tiangong space station can now test more than 100 computer processors simultaneously.
More than 20 new high-performance chips spanning the 28 to 16-nanometre process range have already passed testing. They are considerably more advanced than chips used by other countries in space.
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Nasa has said the chips it currently uses in space are based on 30-year-old technology. For example, the RAD750 processor used in the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space telescope ever that was launched in 2021, was manufactured using antiquated 250-nanometre technology and has a clock frequency of only 118 MHz – less than a fraction of that of a typical smartphone chip.
The scientists said the chips tested on Tiangong were designed and manufactured entirely within China. During testing they were run on China’s independently developed SpaceOS operating system, which is widely used on China’s space station and other space facilities.
It is expected that more domestic chip makers will soon be queuing up to put their top-tier offerings through the rigours of space testing, the team led by Liu Hongjin, of the China Academy of Space Technology, wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in the Chinese academic journal Spacecraft Environment Engineering in December.
Conducting large-scale chip testing in orbit is a massive and challenging task, but it is crucial for China’s rapidly growing space ambitions.
The scale of this work on Tiangong is much larger than China’s previous testing platforms carried by satellites, according to the team.
During routine supply missions to the space station a large number of confidential new chips for civilian or military use can hitch a ride into space and be installed on the outside of the space station by astronauts for rigorous radiation testing in space.
These chips have to run various software programs and the data generated can be beamed back to Earth through the space station’s powerful communication system. If needed, these chips can be returned to Earth with astronauts for further in-depth testing.
This large-scale testing can rapidly improve the technology and cut research and development costs of China’s space-grade chips, according to Liu and his colleagues from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. However, they did reveal the manufacturers, design details and performance parameters of the chips.