Space Application of Microelectromechanical Systems, 15-9229Printer Friendly Version
Inclusive Dates: 12/01/00 - 09/25/01
Background - Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) constitute a new and evolving technology that promises to revolutionize many sensor and control systems technology in the new millennium. Miniaturization of such functions should allow the silicon revolution of the past several decades to extend past the simple information handling of modern computing and into all aspects of technology. The inputs (sensors) and outputs (controllers) serve as the bottlenecks that limit many everyday technology applications, particularly applications where dense nets of information or control are needed. Because of the extremely high cost of launching instrumentation into orbit, the rigors of the launch and space environments (such as vibration and radiation), and the need for extremely high-reliability devices, MEMS technology is ideally suited for space sensor needs. Ultimately, space applications should span the full range from science instrumentation (e.g., charged and uncharged particle detectors, gas-specific sensors, magnetometers, and mass spectrometers) to spacecraft engineering subsystems (e.g., microthrusters, accelerometers, and actuators).
Approach - This project seeks to develop the capability to design, develop, and test MEMS sensors and devices for space applications, while simultaneously producing and testing several initial space MEMS designs. The approach includes identifying potential MEMS devices that can be used for space applications at greatly reduced size, mass and power; designing new devices to solve technically difficult problems in making measurements in space; gaining proficiency in the use of the various design software tools for microfabrication of MEMS devices; designing and developing vacuum equipment and associated drive electronics for testing and operating devices in a simulated space environment; gaining experience in the designing, releasing, testing, and packaging of MEMS devices for potential use in a space application; and developing advanced MEMS design capabilities at SwRI. To enter the MEMS arena with a reasonable investment, the research team has chosen to work through Sandia National Laboratory's SAMPLES (Sandia Agile MEMS Prototyping, Layout tools, Education, and Services) program, which was created to facilitate the introduction and development of MEMS capability in the U.S. private sector. SAMPLES leverages off a huge investment made through the Department of Energy in developing MEMS capabilities to help ensure the longevity and stability of the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Accomplishments - The team has completed the conceptual designs, and after receiving training in the SAMPLES program and acquiring the SAMPLES software, is working on the detailed parts designs for several test devices. Designs include velocity filters, charged particle analyzers, variable apertures, variable mass spectrometer slits, and a new motor design. The other major accomplishment of the work thus far on this project is in the design and construction of a vacuum microprobe station (see illustration below). To the team's knowledge, SwRI is the only organization with an in-vacuum microprobe station for testing and long-duration running of MEMS devices under space-like vacuum conditions. This unique facility will allow for the unprecedented development of MEMS for space (and other vacuum) applications.