Spacecraft/robot are usually chock-a-block with instruments. These are usually devices with some electronics to them. These are probably semiconductor, or vacuum-tube devices - I may be wrong!

Working in vacuum may be different from working in close proximity of a celestial. The operating profile (temperature, pressure, atmosphere ...) of an electronic device meant to work, say, on Luna may vary widely from that meant for, say, Io. This is unlike commercial satellites (which I believe) placed usually in Earth orbit.

  • Are semiconductors ordered one-off for each mission headed beyond Earth?
  • How are these devices tested for compatibility to their field environment?
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There are radiation hardened microelectronics which are used across multiple missions. Using non-radiation-hardened parts has been considered more recently (e.g., cubesats with the same kind of processors used in cell phones). $\endgroup$
    – user56
    Sep 20, 2013 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Custom asics cost a fortune to develop. The military has that kind of budget, but most missions get RAD hardened versions of common semiconductor parts. But vacuum tubes? That's a joke right? If you're curious here's a reference to the type of testing done for space crafts nepp.nasa.gov/docuploads/A6B8B953-E2DD-4D92-AB8A873A04F0B10A/… $\endgroup$
    – user6972
    Sep 21, 2013 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ Actually vacuum tubes are very commonly used in spacecraft, in particular traveling-wave tubes which are used to amplify high frequency RF signals. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Sep 21, 2013 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ The travelling-wave-tubes have an efficiency of 50 to 70 %, much better than solid state power amplifiers for high frequency RF with only 25 to 30 %. The reliability in space is better than that of solid state devices. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Nov 30, 2016 at 10:21

1 Answer 1


For general purpose electronics, such as the processors, memory, etc, there is actually a fairly broad market for radiation tolerant devices. These are often used for military electronics, people who just want to be cautious, weather balloons, etc. Of course, some of these don't meet the long term radiation requirements that satellites are forced to endure, but they are available for many missions. (Source, Source) These chips are more expensive, have limited selection, but they are much cheaper than making your own.

Many missions have requirements which exceed any commercial electronics available. These usually occur in one shot things, huge cameras, new frequencies for observation, etc. These will often require special components.

What is usually done for most satellites is some sort of a combination, using radiation hardened technologies for the most sensitive parts, either off the shelf or custom made, and using radiation enhanced semiconductors, things not made to handle the rigor of space, but tolerant of a radiation. In addition, there are a a number of commercial parts which have a reasonable amount of radiation tolerance, which are often used.

As far as temperature, and pressure, in general, most electronics will work when in a vacuum. Some mechanical work occasionally has difficulties, but that is generally easier to do than custom computer chips. Most chips work over a reasonable temperature, and the satellites simply ensure that they stay in their specified ranges. Most satellites are tested in a vacuum prior to launch (Thermal Vacuum testing), where they test out extreme temperatures and vacuum pressure, to ensure they work fine, but in general, satellites are designed to keep such concerns to a minimum.

Vibration is a bit trickier, but usually the chips aren't sensitive to them as much as the legs of chips are. There are best practices to ensure that they are able to survive the vibration analysis of launch. As vibration is only a concern at launch, they design them as best they can, and test them on the ground to verify they did everything correctly. Most consumer electronics can handle some level of vibration fairly well, due to people dropping them, etc. In general, portable type chips (Cell Phones, for example) work better than stuff to plug in the wall. The same thing applies to power.


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