MANASSAS, Va. —
Situated side-by-side on a sprawling Lockheed Martin campus here some 40 kilometers west of Washington are two state-of-the-art microchip foundries producing two very different product lines.
One of the foundries, operated by Boise, Idaho-based Micron Technology
Inc., cranks out memory chips by the thousands for everything from laptop computers to cell phones.
The other foundry, operated by BAE Systems
of Rockville, Md., works on a much smaller scale, painstakingly producing specially
built memory chips, processors
and other microelectronics for the Pentagon, NASA and other U.S. government customers demanding highly reliable computers built to withstand withering doses of radiation.
“The Micron fab next door does one product, DRAM,” George Nossoman, BAE’s director of advanced digital systems, said during a June 17 tour of the Manassas microchip fabrication facility. “We make 25 different products but at much lower volumes.”
BAE Systems’ Specialty Microelectronics Foundry here is one of two such foundries in the United States that have been updated since 2002 at government expense to assure the continued availability of highly robust semiconductors and other microelectronic components for national security programs. The other such foundry is operated by Honeywell Space Systems in Plymouth, Minn.
BAE Systems acquired the Manassas foundry in 2000 when it bought Lockheed Martin’s Aerospace Electronics Systems business for $1.6 billion. Nearly 500 radiation-hardened computers built here since the 1990s have flown in space as the on
board brains for U.S. spy satellites and planetary probes. BAE’s Manassas work force consists of 390 permanent employees, 25 summer interns
and some other contractors.
The company’s newest generation of radiation-hardened single-board computers, the RAD750, are set to manage data processing and command and control functions for more than a dozen spacecraft headed to space over the next year and a half, including the Pentagon’s Advanced Extremely
High Frequency military communications satellite, the next-generation GPS
, and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Solar Dynamic Observatory missions.
NASA’s Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, launched June 11, has seven RAD750s on board, each one around 10 times more powerful than BAE Systems’ previous generation RAD6000 that helped the Mars Phoenix Lander touch down May 25 and has since been reprogrammed to control the lander’s science operations. The Phoenix lander’s descent was captured by the high-resolution camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which also runs on BAE Systems-supplied computers.
“All the computers on Mars or in orbit around it were actually built at this plant,” Nossaman said.
While NASA flagship missions typically fly radiation-hardened components to better withstand the natural radiation environment of space, for missions where the agency is willing to take more risk, it might fly cheaper radiation-tolerant components and either shield them or fly multiples for redundancy. NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft, for example, does not include BAE System’s rad-hard computers, Nossoman said.
BAE Systems builds three generations of radiation-hardened computers, the oldest being a 20-year-old design that still finds the occasional customer, according to Ian McDonald, BAE Systems’ program director for advanced digital systems.
The company’s newest microprocessor, the RAD750, is based upon the PowerPC 750 microprocessors IBM and Motorola were building for Apple Computer around 2000. Development of the RAD750 was spurred by a project sponsored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Pasadena, Calif.-based field center that leads most of the agency’s planetary missions.
Capable of speeds up to 200 MHz
, the RAD750 can run rings around its predecessor, the RAD6000. Yet, the RAD750 is slow by today’s standards, running at only a fraction of the 2 GHz speeds Apple’s entry-level computers had achieved by the time the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer maker made the switch to Intel chips, which rates processors speeds somewhat differently.
But BAE Systems’ chips are specially built to withstand radiation doses 20 to 100 times higher than commercial chips, Nossoman said. They are also extraordinarily robust, designed and manufactured to be less prone to the kinds of electrical upsets that can send a satellite into safe mode.
To achieve the kind of radiation-tolerance and high-reliability needed for space missions, BAE Systems takes commercial chip designs and rebuilds them from the silicon up.
Radiation hardening requires clever design as well as more painstaking manufacturing techniques. “When we say the computers on M
ars came from Manassas, what we mean is we took silicon in on one end and a computer came out the other,” Nossoman said. A flight-ready computer costs around $250,000 to $300,000.
The day of the tour, BAE Systems announced a new product: a radiation-hardened 16-megabit static random access memory (SRAM) chip that is four times more powerful than the chips it is designed to replace. McDonald said the chip is also smaller, weighs less, and consumes less power than its predecessor.
BAE Systems is currently working in partnership with San Jose, Calif.-based ClearSpeed to harden a specialized chip for hardcore scientific calculations. The chip, designed to work in combination with a general purpose processor like the RAD750, has an initial target performance of
more than 50 billion operations per second. That kind of speed boost is intended to allow spacecraft designers to move more and more payload processing into orbit. The chip should be available in by 2012, Nossoman said.
Nossoman said BAE Systems’ product roadmap also includes a more powerful general purpose microprocessor targeted for the same timeframe, but the company has made no formal announcements about the product. In the meantime, the company is working to squeeze 20-50 percent performance improvements out of the RAD750.
Because the Manassas foundry is set up to work on a relatively small scale, Nossoman said the facility is starting to carve out a niche as a producer of specialty microelectronics for a predominantly defense applications. Over the last three years, he said,
BAE Systems has talked to
more than 200 companies and signed 60 to 80 non-disclosure agreements.
The Manassas foundry
also is helping a BAE Systems’ facility in Lexington, Mass., to nearly double its production of thermal weapon sights to 3,000 a month by producing the infrared focal planes needed for the ramp-up. BAE Systems also has a sponsored research project under way to see if it can build microelectronics out of carbon nanotubes. “If we can make this work, we could potentially have very, very hard electronics or very, very low power electronics,” Nossoman said.
While the Manassas team considers itself adept as looking toward the future, it also considers itself capable of resurrecting the past, as it recently did by bringing back into production a radiation-hardened field programmable gate array that the chip’s original maker, Mountain View, Calif.-based Actel, had stopped manufacturing. McDonald said Actel did not want to bring the chip back into production, so BAE Systems signed a licensing agreement and started making the chip, helping one “national program” – a common euphemism for a classified satellite project – save $40 million it would have otherwise have had to spend qualifying new chips.