29 January 2010


Northrop Grumman supplies ICs for ESA spacecraft

Northrop Grumman Corp of Los Angeles, CA, USA says that its monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs) are flying aboard two European Space Agency (ESA) space telescopes — the Herschel and Planck spacecraft — which are studying the formation of stars and galaxies, as well as relic radiation from the Big Bang. Using Herschel data, scientists earlier this year produced the most detailed images of deep space from 12 million years ago (when the Universe teemed with newly formed stars).

Picture: Herschel and Planck. (Image: ESA/NASA - SOHO/LASCO).

Both Herschel (which has instruments provided by a consortium of European-led institutes) and Planck involve significant participation from NASA. NASA’s Herschel and Planck project offices are both based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments and for both of Planck’s science instruments, respectively. European, US and NASA Planck scientists will work together to analyze the Planck data.

“Our high-performance MMICs enable key components for Herschel and Planck,” says Dwight Streit, VP of Emerging Technologies for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Herschel and Planck use transistors and MMICs developed in Northrop Grumman’s microelectronics facility in Manhattan Beach, CA. The circuits — designed at NASA, JPL, ESA and Northrop Grumman — form the foundation of Herschel’s and Planck’s low-noise amplifiers and switches, as well as Herschel’s terahertz (THz) local oscillator sources. The systems include the lowest-noise MMIC-based millimeter-wave radiometers and THz multiplier sources ever built, it is claimed. “We have a long history of designing and flying MMIC-based radiometers and amplifiers that demonstrate state-of-the-art performance,” Streit says.

Herschel — which is the largest space telescope ever launched, with a 3.5m (11.5 feet) mirror — observes in the far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths, allowing astronomers to see deep into star-forming regions, galactic centers and planetary systems. Planck — which is Europe’s first mission to study relic radiation from the Big Bang — observes the cosmic background radiation: the radiation released into the universe by the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. Planck should help to answer how the universe came to be and how it evolved soon after.

Northrop Grumman has previously supplied microelectronics technology for spacecraft applications including radiometers for Jason 1, Odin, Cloudsat and the Microwave Limb Sounder program. “Our devices are also used in many ground-based applications around the world, including several ground-based telescopes that use them because of their state-of-the-art low-noise capability and their uniformity,” says Richard Lai, director of Technology Programs for Northrop Grumman Microelectronics Processes and Products.

Jason 1 was launched to monitor global ocean circulation, study the ties between the ocean and the atmosphere, improve global climate forecasts and predictions, and monitor events such as El Niño and ocean eddies. Odin was the first indium phosphide MMIC cryogenic amplifier to fly in space. It was designed to perform detailed studies of the physics and chemistry of the interstellar medium by observing emissions from key objects such as giant molecular clouds and nearby galaxies.

Northrop Grumman also supplied microwave amplifiers for the Cloudsat space-based radar, which is used to study cloud formation to measure how much ice and water are in the air at various altitudes. The Microwave Limb Sounder in use on NASA’s Aura spacecraft was created to help better understand the processes and parameters vital to global climate change research and environmental policy by observing the chemistry of Earth’s lower stratosphere and upper troposphere.

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