Responding to U.S. government demand, BAE Systems Inc. will produce and sell a type of space-based semiconductor known as a field programmable gate array (FPGA) that has been discontinued by its original designer, the company announced July 16.
BAE Systems had long produced the RH1280 FPGA at its Manassas, Va., foundry on behalf of Actel Corp. of Mountain View, Calif. Actel discontinued the line in 2006, and the companies worked out a licensing deal this spring under which BAE Electronics & Integrated Solutions will assume responsibility for both producing and marketing the chip, which has been redesignated the RH1280B.
The BAE officials said the line is being revived at the behest of the U.S. government for a legacy national – a euphemism for classified – satellite program. But they said the RG1280 FPGA is used on a variety of satellites, including those based on the Lockheed Martin A2100 and Boeing 702 platforms.
Switching to a new FPGA would cost millions of dollars in satellite-component redesign work, the officials said. A typical satellite includes 30 to 40 of the FPGAs, and BAE has promised its government customer that it will make the legacy chips available for another 15 years, they said.
The RH1280B is far from cutting-edge technology, conceded Tim Scott, national sales manager for BAE Systems in Manassas. But for the U.S. government and some big satellite makers, the 11-year-old microchip remains in dispensable.
“This solves a major obsolescence problem for many legacy satellite programs,” BAE said in a press release. Continued production of the old FPGA enables “producers of satellite payloads and instruments to avoid time-consuming and costly redesigns.”
The state-of-the-art foundry that will produce the RH1280B was updated with government funding as part of a $200 million program intended to assure the availability of highly robust semiconductors and other microelectronic components for national security programs, said George Nossaman, director of Advanced Digital Systems at BAE Systems. The industrial-base program, begun in 2002, also upgraded a similar semiconductor foundry operated by Honeywell in Plymouth, Minn.
The chips and integrated circuits produced at the two plants are hardened to withstand very high doses of radiation, such as those produced by the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast in space, BAE officials said. Such highly robust devices are used aboard the Pentagon’s Milstar series of highly secure strategic communications satellites, among others. The commercial market for devices hardened to military standards is limited because of their high cost, BAE officials said.