Aerospace & Defence

Space exploration technologies to break down barriers of space travel

22nd July 2016
Daisy Stapley-Bunten

Space has long been a field reserved for big spenders such as governments and large companies. However with rapid advances in electronics and information technology, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of El Segundo, California, seeks to break through the cost barrier with its family of low-cost Falcon launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft. 

Through a combination of innovative practices, intuitive tools and lateral management, SpaceX has been able to develop cost efficient vehicles fitted with high quality avionics. This philosophy helped SpaceX to secure the Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) contract with NASA. This contract aims to demonstrate that private launch vehicles have the ability to provide launch and delivery services to the International Space Station (ISS).

“As a PCB design tool, Altium Designer is second to none. The unified design environment is intuitive and has made managing my project trouble free. In just two weeks I was able to learn the tool, design my board, and have a fully assembled PCB ready for test. Altium Designer is an incredibly flexible and capable tool. I would recommend every circuit designer consider making the switch,” said Matt Soule, Engineer at SpaceX.

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The challenge
Space technology is unique. All electronics and related components must meet the highest level of quality and reliability, all whilst fulfilling a number of industry and government guidelines. The physical rigors of the vehicle launch and the extreme conditions of space place the highest demands on all systems, especially electronics. To ensure its launch vehicles always perform at this extraordinary level, SpaceX develops many of its boards and controllers under the fault-tolerant discipline. This time consuming engineering technique ensures that all systems can continue to operate despite a given component failing. Controllers and PCBs are fitted with additional components and back-up mechanisms for greater reliability. With designs being as complex as a fault-tolerant controller with multiple FPGAs, the challenge for SpaceX was to complete these designs on time whilst maintaining quality and low costs.

The solution
Since incorporating Altium Designer into its production process, SpaceX has found the design process has simplified. Altium’s unified system offers a much greater level of version control than its previous toolset and now SpaceX can better manage its ongoing design development. Altium’s live design capabilities mean that the simplest modifications are automatically adjusted in all previous board and schematic work. The result: a flexible but reliable development and documentation process for SpaceX’s catalogue of PCB designs.

Altium’s comprehensive libraries were found to be one of the biggest development boons for SpaceX. The library feature provided engineers with the latest and most up-todate components in a user-friendly system. Engineers were also able to add new components, which allowed for greater customisation and board enhancements.

In addition, design flows were complemented by Altium Designer’s ready-to-use FPGA-based components for instant FPGA integration. This feature meant SpaceX could immediately employ FPGAs into its designs, easily capturing them at the schematic level. With the features combined, SpaceX had a complete set of solutions in a single platform system..

The results
SpaceX found that by using Altium Designer, it could continue to improve on its low cost, high reliability designs. For example, SpaceX has built avionic systems that meet the same quality standards as those used in multi-million dollar satellite projects.

Since introducing Altium Designer into its development process, SpaceX has enjoyed considerable improvements in its productivity. Without prior knowledge of the software, engineers were easily able to complete designs without the usual rigorous training required from separate or loosely integrated tools. Within just two weeks of applying Altium technology, engineers were able to create a power distribution and regulation board. This trend has continued. SpaceX has found its project turn over has increased exponentially.

Product information
Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy are all part of the SpaceX line of low cost and reusable space launch vehicles. The Falcon 1 is the smallest and can lift up to 570kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The largest, the Falcon 9 Heavy, will carry up to 28,700kg to LEO and 10,350kg to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Launched aboard a Falcon 9 launcher, the Dragon pressurised spacecraft capsule can transport up to 2500kg of cargo, or a crew of up to seven astronauts to LEO. Its capacity to carry passengers is an important part of the overall SpaceX vision of reducing the costs and increasing access to space for both government and private customers.

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