FPGA enables high-bandwidth space systems with lower system cost

Developers of spacecraft electronics use radiation-tolerant (RT) field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to create on-board systems that meet the demanding performance needs of future space missions, starting with the launch process and continuing to the harsh environment of space. Microchip Technology Inc. has introduced a low power FPGA, designated the RT PolarFire FPGA, that is optimized to meet the demanding requirements in spacecraft payload systems’ high-speed data paths with low power consumption and heat generation.

According to Ken O’Neill, director at Microchip Technology, satellite operators face data processing limitations as sensor resolution increases faster than available bandwidth. Coupled with faster frame rates, this makes it desirable for more data to be processed onboard the satellite instead of first being sent over a link.

“There is a need to do more processing in space,” said O’Neill in an interview with FierceElectronics. “Satellites will need to make autonomous decisions.”

The RT PolarFire FPGA enables this at significantly lower cost and with faster design cycles than possible with application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). It also significantly reduces power as compared to the alternative of using FPGAs based on static random access memory (SRAM), while eliminating their vulnerability to radiation-induced configuration upsets. The RT PolarFire FPGA is supported by all necessary radiation data, specifications, package details and tools customers need to start new designs now.

The FPGA builds on the company’s Microchip’s RTG4 FPGA, which has been widely deployed in space applications that require radiation-hardening against single event upsets (SEUs) and inherent immunity to single event latch-ups (SELs) and configuration upsets. For space applications that require up to five times the computing throughput, the RT PolarFire FPGA provides 50% more performance and triple the logic elements and serializer-deserializer (SERDES) bandwidth.

According to Microchip, the FPGA provides six times the amount of embedded SRAM to enable more system complexity than previously possible using FPGAs and withstands total ionizing dose (TID) exposure beyond the 100 kilorads (kRads) typical of most earth-orbiting satellites and many deep-space missions.

Low power consumption is another requirement for FPGAs used in space. “In space applications, you’re drawing power from solar panels on the satellite,” said O’Neill. “Solar panels degrade over the lifetime of the spacecraft. It becomes critically important when thermal management is considered.”

The RT PolarFire FPGA consumes half the power of alternative SRAM-based FPGAs with equivalent density and performance. Its SONOS non-volatile (NV) technology enables its configuration switches to be implemented in a more power-efficient architecture that cuts development and bill of materials costs through simplified, less expensive and lighter power system design, while minimizing heat dissipation to reduce thermal management problems.

The RT PolarFire FPGA will undergo the standard process for meeting QML standards including class V qualification for highly critical applications. Microchip has lengthy experience achieving QML qualification for its RTG4 FPGAs and other products, which requires extensive and continuous testing, including screening each wafer and package assembly lot.

The FPGA comes in a hermetically sealed ceramic column grid array package with integrated decoupling capacitors. It will be available and qualified for space-flight deployment in 2021. Customers can start designs now using the commercial PolarFire MPF500T FPGA with Microchip’s Libero software tool suite. Development boards are available with the commercial PolarFire FPGA and will later include the RT PolarFire device in engineering model form. Available radiation data includes TID, SEL, configuration upsets, and upsets in unprotected D-flip flop (DFF) and memory.