Why do Satellite Components not need Radiation-Hardened Testing for use in LEO?

1 Answer
Can you answer this question?
Nov 21, 2023

Satellite components doesn’t need radiation-hardened testing for use in LEO orbit because the radiation levels encountered are relatively low compared to other environments such as deep space or near nuclear reactors. The radiation environment in LEO is considerably less severe than in other orbits (MEO, GEO, HEO, etc). The Earth’s magnetic field also provides some protection against radiation. In addition, satellites in LEO are closer to Earth than those in higher orbits, which means that they are shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere from some of the harmful radiation.

Radiation-hardened testing is the process of making electronic components and circuits resistant to damage or malfunction caused by high levels of ionizing radiation (particle radiation and high-energy electromagnetic radiation), especially for environments in outer space (especially beyond the low Earth orbit), around nuclear reactors and particle accelerators, or during nuclear accidents or nuclear warfare. Radiation-hardened products typically undergo testing involving one or more assessment procedures, which encompass assessments for total ionizing dose (TID), enhanced low dose rate effects (ELDRS), displacement damage from neutrons and protons, and evaluations for single event effects (SEEs).

LEO satellites are sheltered from most of the ionizing radiation, and the risk of radiation-induced component failures is relatively low. Thus, manufacturers can prioritize cost-efficiency and performance in component design, without the need for extensive radiation hardening. 

Key reasons for not testing components in LEO Orbit -

  • Reduced Radiation Exposure in LEO: One of the primary reasons why components used in LEO do not require radiation-hardened testing is the significantly reduced radiation exposure in this orbital region. LEO satellites operate at altitudes ranging from approximately 160 kilometers to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. At these altitudes, the Earth's magnetic field provides substantial shielding, diverting most of the high-energy particles, such as cosmic rays and Van Allen belt radiation, away from LEO satellites. This natural shielding significantly reduces the risk of radiation-induced component failures when compared to satellites in higher orbits.
  • Lower Risk of Radiation-Induced Failures: Radiation exposure in space can lead to various types of radiation-induced failures in electronic components. These include single-event upsets (SEUs), latch-ups, and total ionizing dose (TID) effects. In higher orbits, where radiation levels are much higher, radiation-hardened components are essential to mitigate these risks. In LEO, the occurrence of such radiation-induced failures is relatively rare due to the reduced radiation environment.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Radiation-hardened components are specially designed and manufactured to withstand the effects of ionizing radiation, making them more expensive and less commercially available than standard electronic components. Utilizing radiation-hardened components in LEO satellites, where radiation is less of a threat, would lead to unnecessary costs. By using standard, non-hardened components, manufacturers can significantly reduce the cost of building LEO satellites, which is especially crucial for commercial satellite operators and space agencies looking to optimize budgets.
  • Performance and Availability: Radiation-hardened components often come with trade-offs in terms of performance and availability. They may have lower processing speeds or reduced capabilities compared to their non-hardened counterparts. By using standard components, LEO satellites can benefit from the latest technological advancements and higher-performance hardware, which is essential for applications like Earth observation, telecommunications, and scientific research conducted in LEO.
  • Reduced Space Debris and Micrometeoroid Impact: Another advantage of LEO is the reduced risk of space debris and micrometeoroid impact. At these lower altitudes, the density of space debris is lower, reducing the likelihood of collisions that could potentially damage satellite components. This factor further diminishes the need for radiation-hardened testing, as the primary focus shifts to mechanical robustness in LEO missions.
  • Enhanced Design Flexibility: Non-hardened components offer more flexibility in satellite design and allow for quicker development cycles. Manufacturers can focus on optimizing other aspects of LEO satellites, such as propulsion systems, communication payloads, and power generation, without the constraints associated with radiation-hardened components.