MEMS in space
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24-02-2009, 12:19 AM

The satellite industry could experience its biggest revolution since it joined the ranks of commerce, thanks to some of the smallest machines in existence. Researchers are performing experiments designed to convince the aerospace industry that microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) could open the door to low-cost, high-reliability, mass-produced satellites. MEMS combine conventional semiconductor electronics with beams, gears, levers, switches, accelerometers, diaphragms, microfluidic thrusters, and heat controllers, all of them microscopic in size. We can do a whole new array of things with MEMS that cannot be done any other way, said Henry Helvajian, a senior scientist with Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit aerospace research and development organization in El Segundo, Calif. Microelectromechanical Systems, or MEMS, are integrated micro devices or systems combining electrical and mechanical components. They are fabricated using integrated circuit (IC) batch processing techniques and can range in size from micrometers to millimeters. These systems can sense, control and actuate on the micro scale, and function individually or in arrays to generate effects on the macro scale. MEMS is an enabling technology and current applications include accelerometers, pressure, chemical and flow sensors, micro-optics, optical scanners, and fluid pumps. Generally a satellite consists of battery, internal state sensors, communication systems and control units. All these can be made of MEMS so that size and cost can be considerably reduced. Also small satellites can be constructed by stacking wafers covered with MEMS and electronics components. These satellites are called I Kg class satellites or Picosats. These satellites having high resistance to radiation and vibration compared to conventional devices can be mass-produced there by reducing the cost. These can be used for various space applications. Also small satellites can be constructed by stacking wafers covered with MEMS and electronics components. These satellites are called I Kg. TECHNOLOGY Although MEMS devices are extremely small MEMS technology is not about size. Instead, MEMS is a manufacturing technology; a new way of making complex electromechanical systems using batch fabrication techniques similar to the way integrated circuits are made and making these electromechanical elements along with electronics. Material used The material used for manufacturing MEMS is Silicon. Silicon possesses excellent materials properties making it an attractive choice for many high-performance mechanical applications (e.g. the strength-to-weight ratio for silicon is higher than many other engineering materials allowing very high bandwidth mechanical devices to be realized). Components of MEMS Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) is the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators, and electronics on a common silicon substrate through the utilization of micro fabrication technology. MEMS is truly an enabling technology allowing the development of smart products by augmenting the computational ability of microelectronics with the perception and control capabilities of micro sensors and micro actuators.
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MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) are the integration of electrical devices and mechanical structures at the micrometer (10-6 m = 0.000001 m) scale. The essence of MEMS is their ability to perform and enhance tasks, in ways and in the micro world, impossible using conventional technologies. MEMS devices find applications in the automotive, medical, aerospace, defense and telecommunications industries. Although, electrical devices and very few mechanical devices at this scale are common, the scaling down of common mechanical devices found in the macro world has created a research area all its own. The behavior of mechanical structures at the micro scale has yet to reach full understanding. Although, MEMS are created using many of the fully understood processing techniques used in IC (Integrated Circuit) processing with little variation, there are still many material, fabrication and packaging issues that have yet to be resolved. Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) is the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators, and electronics on a common silicon substrate through micro fabrication technology. While the electronics are fabricated using integrated circuit (IC) process sequences (e.g., CMOS, Bipolar, or BICMOS processes), the micromechanical components are fabricated using compatible "micromachining" processes that selectively etch away parts of the silicon wafer or add new structural layers to form the mechanical and electromechanical devices.

The semiconductor industry already has much of the infrastructure to batch process MEMS devices, however, the expertise to mass produce a wide variety of MEMS devices is still in its infancy, stimulated by research funded by both corporations and government agencies. NASA has a very special interest in MEMS technology. MEMS offer the benefits of significantly reduced mass and power consumption translating directly into direct cost benefits as a result of this. The main obstacle in rapidly integrating new technologies into space systems is determining system reliability. Reliability, the ability of a device/system to maintain performance requirements throughout its lifetime, is a major consideration factor for making device selections for space flight applications. Space missions can be expected to last upwards of 5 years with spacecraft subject to extreme mechanical shock, vibration, temperature, vacuum, and radiation environments.

MEMS promises to revolutionize nearly every product category by bringing together silicon-based microelectronics with micromachining technology, making possible the realization of complete systems-on-a-chip. MEMS is an enabling technology allowing the development of smart products, augmenting the computational ability of microelectronics with the perception and control capabilities of microsensors and microactuators and expanding the space of possible designs and applications.

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MEMS devices can be classified in many ways, however in the broader sense there are only two types, sensors and actuators. Some devices act as both sensor and actuator. The remaining systems include individual types or combinations with added electronic circuitry for control and/or processing information. The three basic types of MEMS devices are:

1. Sensor - converts a nonelectrical input quantity (i.e. pressure, temperature, acceleration) into an electrical output quantity. Sensors are commonly encountered.
2. Actuator - converts electrical input quantities into non-electrical output quantities.

3. Smart MEMS - MEMS combined with additional electronic circuitry for control and processing information

Microelectronic integrated circuits can be thought of as the "brains" of a system and MEMS augments this decision-making capability with "eyes" and "arms", to allow microsystems to sense and control the environment. Sensors gather information from the environment through measuring mechanical, thermal, biological, chemical, optical, and magnetic phenomena. The electronics then process the information derived from the sensors and through some decision making capability direct the actuators to respond by moving, positioning, regulating, pumping, and filtering, thereby controlling the environment for some desired outcome or purpose. Because MEMS devices are manufactured using batch fabrication techniques similar to those used for integrated circuits, unprecedented levels of functionality, reliability, and sophistication can be placed on a small silicon chip at a relatively low cost.


The evolution of microelectomechanical systems (MEMS) from the laboratory curiosities to commercial off-shelf components (COTS) is being driven by government investments and strong market forces. MEMS offers a capability for mass production, small, reliable, intelligent instruments at reduced costs by reducing the number of piece parts, eliminating manual assembly steps and controlling material variability. These features, together with reduced mass and power requirements are what space system designer’s dream about.

Space system comprises more than just spacecraft, they include launch vehicles and the ground based systems used for tracking, command and control and data dissemination (pictures of earth, telephone calls, movies via satellite etc.) MEMS technology would allow developments of new commercial uses of space in the proliferation of miniaturized ground transmitters with on board sensors. MEMS, coupled with the current generation of digital electronics and telecommunication circuits, can be used for distributed remote sensing applications. For example, transmitters of the size of fist and smaller can send environmental information such as local atmosphere, pressure, temperature and humidity, directly to satellite.

MEMS will also enable a radically new way of building and using spacecraft. Silicon, for example can be used as a multifunctional material: as structure, electronic substrate, MEMS substrate, radiation shield, thermal control system and optical material. With proper spacecraft design it can provide these functions simultaneously. A 'silicon' satellite composed of bonded thick wafer could be manufactured by one or more semiconductor foundries. Batch fabrication would allow mass production of spacecraft from one hundred to several thousands units which would enable dispersed satellites architecture and space design meant for single function and disposable missions.


MEMS offer the benefits of significantly reduced mass and power consumption, translating directly into costs benefits as a result of the major decrease in size. There are a number of possibilities for the insertion of MEMS and ASIM (application specific micro instruments) components into space hardware. Following are the best estimate of the above technologies that will be inserted in the near term.

• Command and Control systems
- "MEMtronics" for ultra radiation hard and temperature-
insensitive digital logic
- On-chip thermal switches for latchup isolation and reset

• Inertial Guidance Systems
- Microgyros (rate sensors)
- Microaccelerometers
- Micromirrors and micro optics for FOGs (fiber-optic gyros)

• Attitude determination and control systems
- Micromachined sun and Earth sensors
- Micromachined magnetometers
- Microthrusters

• Power systems
- MEMtronic blocking diodes
- MEMtronic switches for active solar cell array
- Microthermoelectric generators

• Propulsion systems
- Micromachined pressure sensors
- Micromachined chemical sensors (leak detection)
- Arrays of single shot thrusters (digital propulsion)
- Continuous microthrusters (cold gas, combustible solid resistojet)
- Pulsed microthrusters

• Thermal control systems
- Micro heat pipes
- Microradiators
- Thermal switches

• Communication and radar systems
- Very high band width, low power, low resistance radio
frequency (RF) switches
- Micromirrors and micro-optics for laser communications
- Micromechanical variable capacitors, inductors and oscillators

• Space environment sensors
- Micromachined magnetometers
- Gravity-gradient monitors (nano-g accelerometers)

• Distributed semiautonomous sensors
- Multiparameter sensor ASIM with accelerometers and
chemical sensors

• Interconnects and packaging
- Interconnects and packaging designed for ease of reparability
- Field programmable interconnect structures
- “Smart” interconnects for positive-feedback

Inserting micro engineering technology into current systems can provide better monitoring of system status and health, which can help resolve potential operational abnormalities and permit increased functionality with almost negligible weight or power impacts.MEMS and ASIM technologies can also be used to instrument the launch vehicle. Current launch vehicles such as TITAN IV are often instrumented to measure the lift-off and ascent flight environments.MEMS sensors (accelerometers, chemical sensors etc.) coupled to data transceivers can be used in a wireless network system onboard the vehicle and on the launch site.


This topic discusses on micro fabrication techniques for making mechanical parts. Motors, pivots, linkages, and other mechanical devices can be made to fit inside this circle “O”. These devices are also potentially quite inexpensive. For example, using silicon surface micromachining, a gear captivated on a pivot can be made for less than a cent.

These technologies make devices ranging in size from a dozen millimeters to a dozen microns. Silicon surface micromachining inexpensively makes completely assembled mechanical systems. Silicon bulk micromachining uses either etches that stop on the crystallographic planes of a silicon wafer or etches that act isotropically to generate mechanical parts. These techniques combined with wafer bonding and boron diffusion allows complex mechanical devices to be fabricated. The LIGA technology makes miniature parts with spectacular accuracy. Electro Discharge Machining, EDM, extends conventional machine shop technology to make sub-millimeter sized parts. .

Micromechanical parts tend to be rugged, respond rapidly, use little power, occupy a small volume, and are often much less expensive than conventional macro parts. Belle Mead Research, BMR, specializes in helping companies understand when it is advantageous to use micromechanical parts, and developing products incorporating these devices.


Silicon surface micromachining uses the same equipment and processes as the electronics semiconductor industry. This has led to a very rapid evolution of silicon surface micromachining. Very sophisticated equipment and experienced operators are available to manufacture these devices. One company is even offering the integration of surface micro machined devices and CMOS electronics on the same chip. This technique deposits layers of sacrificial and structural material on the surface of a silicon wafer. As each layer is deposited it is patterned, leaving material only where the designer wishes. When the sacrificial material is removed, completely formed and assembled mechanical devices are left.

Figure 4 shows the process steps to make a gear. The oxide is the sacrificial material, and the polysilicon is structural. In Figure 5, one of the original set of gears W Trimmer and collaborators made at Bell Laboratories is shown.

Comb drives actuators and electrostatic motors can be fabricated using this technique. Figure 6 shows a comb drive actuator. The curved white fingers are fixed to the substrate, and the gray fingers are free to move. By applying a voltage alternately to the top and bottom white fingers, the electrostatic force causes the gray structure to start to resonate. Figure 7 shows a mass attached to the comb drive resonator. Depending upon the frequency of excitation, the mass can be made to translate, or rotate.



Within the spacecraft, heat pipes are normally used to provide high thermal conductivity paths. Miniature heat pipes have diameters on the order of 1mm: while micro heat pipes have diameters on the order of 10micro.m.Heat pipe is a sealed vessel as a thermal conductance device. Working fluid is charged in heat pipe. The phase of working fluid at evaporator section (heat source) is changed from liquid to vapor and contrarily changed at condenser section and cooled. Cooled working fluid is returned to from condenser to evaporator by capillary action within wick structure. It dissipates energy from heat source by the latent heat of evaporation in a nearly isothermal operation. Working fluid is circulated inside heat pipe accompanying with the phase change at both evaporator and condenser. So, also called two-phase convection device. The basic elements of heat pipe are shown figure. A number of heat pipes have been developed to cool numerous applications, such as microelectronics chip, space, reactor, engine, etc.The fabrication is relatively straightforward using a (100) silicon wafer. A long thin exposed region of silicon can be anisotropically etched to produce a "V" groove, which becomes a sealed tube when bonded against a flat surface. Methanol has been used as the working fluid. The results show an increase in effective thermal conductivity of up to 81%, compared with a standard silicon wafer, and a significantly improved transient thermal response. Micro machined heat pumps may provide an effective way of removing heat from the integrated circuits without using metallic radiator elements.

Fig. Micro heat pipe


Silicon satellites (also known as nanosatellites) were introduced by Janson, Helvajian and Robinson. This concept presents a new paradigm for space system design, construction, testing, architecture and deployment. Integrated spacecraft that are capable of attitude and orbit control for complex space missions can be designed for mass production using adaptations of semiconductor batch fabrication techniques. Useful silicon satellites have dimensions of 10 to 30cms; while more complex configurations using additional nonsilicon mechanical structure (i.e. truss beams, honeycomb panels and inflatable structures) will be much larger. The benefits of silicon satellites are as follows.

• Radically increased functionality per unit mass
• Ability to produce 10,000 or more units for “throw away” and dispersed satellite missions.
• Decreased material variability and increased reliability because of rigid process control.
• Rapid prototyping production capability using electronic circuit, sensor and MEMS design libraries with existing computer aided design (CAD/CAM)
• Reduced number of piece parts
• Ability to tailor design in CAD/CAM to fabricate mission specific units.

Silicon satellites are classified as follows
• Micro satellites (1kg 100kg mass)
• Nano satellites ( 1g – 1kg mass)
• Pico satellites ( 1mg – 1g)
• Femo satellites (1 micro.g – 1mg mass)

These technologies permit the integration of the C&DH and communication systems, low resolution attitude sensors, inertial navigation sensors and a propulsion system into a 1cm cube or smaller size satellite. Pico satellites and Femo satellites would be ideal as simple environment sensors. Using only solar radiation and depending on the overall configuration, Pico satellites through micro satellites can produce power levels in the 1 – 100w range. Pico satellites are the smallest useful satellites, but active thermal control will be required. A thermally passive Pico satellite will have temperature range swings of 90k between sunlight and eclipse on low earth orbit. Cubic Pico satellites made of silicon can have as much as 0.18cm radiation shielding and orbit lifetimes of several years at 700km altitude under solar maximum conditions. These silicon satellites can be good for disposable or short duration missions.


Microelectromechanical systems have proved to be a part of the developing age especially in the field of space and technology. It can be seen that the incorporation of the MEMS devices will increase the autonomy in the operations and increase availability through the use of condition based maintenance protocols. Perhaps the most profound result from this revolution will be that MEMS and MEMS devices will become truly a mass producible commodity much like the dynamic RAM chip used today








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