The View from Up Here: MACOM’s 50+ Years in Space

May. 09, 2017

SpaceHiRelBlogImageMini.jpg (498696374)MACOM’s involvement with the US aerospace industry goes back to the exciting initial developments of the early 1950s, when our products were placed in some of the world’s first deployed satellites.

MACOM’s first known trip into space was on the spin-stabilized unmanned probe Pioneer IV, which successfully launched in March 1959. As the industry evolved, MACOM continued to innovate and expand its product portfolio to support the developments and requirements of the Space and Hi-Rel markets.

Over the years, MACOM products have travelled on hundreds of space missions. Our parts have entered the solar system on the Voyager, touched down on Mars aboard the Pathfinder, played a crucial role in the relay satellites for the manned Moon landings and were part of the space shuttle landing systems. In addition to US space programs, we’ve also supported the satellite business in the UK, continental Europe and India.

Experience Counts

The space industry is often understandably on the uncompromising leading edge of technology and reliability. It’s an incredibly risk-averse sector, and customers go to great lengths to identify the products that work and then stick with them. Perhaps more true for this industry than any other, small mistakes can have dire and global consequences.

Customers need to know that a vendor has in-depth experience and understanding of the products they produce, and knowledge of any implications which can present for the end system. There are certain procedures that manufacturers like MACOM follow which commercial producers need not concern themselves with – such as outgassing of materials, the environment in which we seal the parts and the various verification testing performed.

These additional Hi-Rel, Mil-Spec and Aerospace considerations all have a fundamental effect on the long-term reliability of the final product. And that’s one of the reasons why these customers seek vendors with proven experience – vendors with deep domain expertise, who manufacture their products with exacting processes and process controls, and can screen their products for any potentially catastrophic failure factors.

Developments over the Decades

Perhaps the most significant changes for the Space and Hi-Rel sectors over the years have been driven by issues of obsolescence and diminishing sources of supply.

This has forced many aerospace customers to start looking at best commercial practices that can still meet their strict mil-standard procurement procedures. Gradually, a shift has occurred toward more flexibility in the way products are sourced and the industry is seeing more designs with commercial products that are up-screened with plastic-encapsulation. Manufacturers are forced to experiment with and use commercial parts, tweak them, up-screen them and run them through additional testing to reduce risk.

MACOM, like many of the few Space and Hi-Rel vendors, must therefore maintain rigid control of the entire production/procurement process, ensuring that quality and reliability is assured.

Looking Forward

So what’s coming up next in the space industry? There is a lot of excitement over the new proposed satellite constellations requiring thousands of individual satellites buzzing in orbit.

To fulfill the dream of providing satellite communications, services and entertainment through high bandwidth LEO satellite constellations, there will be a need for whole batches of small, essentially disposable satellites that will be replenished on a regular basis. Ultimately, this would lead to the commercialization of the entire supply chain. If customers go with the least-expensive/lowest-risk trade-off, we’re looking at more large volume custom parts for their satellites, similarly as we saw back in the cellphone industry in the 90s.  

To enable this mass deployment, Space and Hi-Rel customers will need to drive the overall cost of each satellite down to a bare minimum. This may lead to the space business transitioning to a commodity model, superseding the present highly specialized, high-cost/low-volume approach. The time from ‘concept to launch’ will likely drop steeply, and the industry will see more adoption of newer technologies like GaN and SiGe that can deliver the performance requirements at the correct cost structures and volume.

Will the constellation plans work out as envisioned? The traditional space customer will likely adopt some of these best practices if they prove reliable. The jury’s still out, but if they do, then buckle yourself in and get ready for some radical changes.


Disclaimer

All financial guidance projections referenced in this post were made as of the publication date or another historical date noted herein, and any references to such projections herein are not intended to reaffirm them as of any later date. MACOM undertakes no obligation to update any forward-looking statement or projection at any future date. This post may include information and projections derived from third-party sources concerning addressable market size and growth rates and similar general economic or industry data. MACOM has not independently verified any information and projections from third party sources incorporated herein. This post may also contain market statistics and industry data that are subject to uncertainty and are not necessarily reflective of market conditions. Although MACOM believes that these statistics and data are reasonable, they have been derived from third party sources and have not been independently verified by MACOM.