Due to the rising demand for satellite-based connectivity services across numerous applications, including communication, navigation, Earth observation, and many more, the global space economy has been expanding rapidly.
According to the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), the production, launch, associated services, and ground gear for satellites made up the $371 billion global space industry as of 2020.
Due to a variety of factors, including an increase in the frequency of small satellite launches, an increase in satellite internet and broadband services, and technological advancements, the space technology industry is predicted to grow exponentially.
However, accomplishing mammoth tasks of space exploration and enabling technological advances through space technologies poses great challenges. A few of such challenges include sustaining a harsh space environment, reducing the cost of space technologies for mass application, and safety of the equipment and people involved in space missions.
To overcome these challenges, researchers, engineers, and scientists are constantly working toward innovating existing technologies and finding better solutions.
The commercial-off-the-shelf components (COTS) are one such example of innovative solutions, and they hold great importance in the space industry.
What is COTS technology?
Commercial off-the-shelf products are packed or canned (ready-made) hardware or software that are modified post-purchase to meet the demands of the purchasing organization rather than commissioning bespoke solutions.
In the space industry, COTS components can be used in small satellites. As the satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO) for three to five years, space components require less degree of validated components and are manufactured using COTS components.
The application of commercial-off-the-shelf components can potentially save the costs involved in the testing, validation process, and implementation of satellites since commercially available real-time operating systems and software tools can be employed on them.
However, these components require verification and testing to ensure their functionality. This is largely due to the high degree of radiation in the space environment. Space contains a high level of radiation that can potentially cause anomalies in the operability of space electronics components.
Due to factors such as technological expansion in electronic components and associated devices for the Internet of Things (IoT) enabling services, market experts expect the global satellite COTS components market to grow substantially in the future.
According to the BIS Research analysis, the global satellite commercial-off-the-shelf components market is estimated to reach $4.12 billion by 2032 from $1.93 billion in 2021, at a growth rate of 1.21% during the forecast period 2022-2032.
Innovation of Radiation Hardening Components with Smart COTS Components in Small Satellites
Currently, the COTS components have a lower radiation absorption capacity ranging from 15 to 50K radiation. This capacity is significantly lower than radiation-hardened products that can withstand radiation doses of over 100K radiation.
However, there are parts with 1K radiation that can be installed in spacecraft for a month. Small satellites and space agencies can use these electronic components, and businesses are investing heavily in research and development (R&D) to create trustworthy COTS electronic components.
To support a new generation of compact satellites and CubeSats for novel space applications, radiation-hardened processors, memory, power supplies, and other components are undergoing significant changes. The first step in this transformation is the replacement of expensive radiation-hardened-by-design parts with full commercial off-the-shelf components.
Modified circuits, real-time supporting software, cache validation, and scrubbing methods, as well as necessary testing and certification, are strategies utilized to build suitable COTS electronics components for these satellites.
By using COTS components, radiation protection can be achieved without sacrificing quality. These components are less expensive, take less time to develop, and have cheaper parts. If the costs of COTS components and radiation-hardened components are compared, it can be observed that COTS components are about 60% less expensive.
Emerging private satellite manufacturers are now adopting cost-effective commercial-off-the-shelf electronic technologies for building most of their satellites. For instance, in January 2022, Cobham Plc signed an agreement with Lattice semiconductor corporation to qualify and sell radiation-tolerant field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) for satellite and space applications.
The collaboration would allow Cobham Plc to address the growing demand for commercial-off-the-self (COTS) reprogrammable devices in satellites network, which require a high degree of redundancy and radiation tolerance.
However, according to systems designers, the use of pure-COTS components can be problematic, depending on the application, and has resulted in unexpected on-orbit failures that have the potential to terminate or degrade the operations of satellites.
Using pure-COTS components and developing a test and measurement program can help avoid unanticipated on-orbit system failures or performance deterioration.
The research and development stage is crucial in a product's overall design. The prototyping of space electronic components, the engineering and development of software and hardware, the designing and development of components, and the securing of regulatory permissions are all essential.
Companies are working to create cutting-edge commercial-off-the-shelf electronic components with improved space perturbation shielding capabilities at affordable prices.
Additionally, the key market participants are attempting to provide reliable and affordable components that can be applied to several satellites with minimal design and integration changes.
Currently, the commercial-off-the-shelf components for space applications are being developed across all the subsystems, such as payload, electrical and power subsystem, command and data handling system, communication subsystem, thermal control subsystem, attitude determination and control subsystem, propulsion control subsystem, mechanisms, and actuators.
Electronic component and subsystem technical advancements are currently transforming the space sector. Not only have components advanced quickly, but they have also boosted the duration and cost-effectiveness of space missions. The usage of electronic components enables the satellite subsystems to operate as accurately as possible.
The development of the best components for small satellites is the main emphasis of COTS component manufacturers.
Therefore, manufacturers of commercially available components must meet the ongoing demand for these satellites by effectively integrating small platforms that have quick manufacturing cycles and lower launch prices for satellite subsystems.