Magnetic RAM rockets into space

Japanese research satellite to use magnetic read only memory (MRAM) to hunt sprites in the upper-atmosphere.

02/26/2008


Nuremberg, Germany – You thought sprites were just cute little pixies that people with hyperactive imaginations see. In fact, sprites are complex upper atmospheric phenomena first photographed by Space Shuttle astronauts on Oct. 21, 1989, although apocryphal sightings by military and commercial pilots had been reported earlier. Scientific understanding of these short-lived electrical phenomena, however, is practically nil.

Scientists at

Tohoku University

in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, led by professor Yoshida Kazuya plan to change that by launching a satellite called SpriteSat. The spacecraft is one of six small satellites to be launched this summer aboard an H-IIA rocket in summer 2008 by the

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

. One of the spacecraft’s significant experiments will rely on an emerging technology for its memory. That emerging technology is

magnetic random access memory (MRAM)

,

Sprites (also called “red sprites”) occur above thunderstorms prior to the familiar lightning discharges seen in the middle and lower atmosphere. Unlike those more familiar discharges, sprites (along with related phenomena called blue flashes and jets) move upward from the thunderstorm tops toward the stratosphere instead of downward toward the ground.

Capable of mounting a long-term observation program, SpriteSat will carry a magnetometer subsystem dubbed Tohoku-AAC MEMS Unit (TAMU). TAMU will provide SpriteSat with magnetometer data of the Earth’s magnetic field to correlate with its sprite observations.

Built by Ångström Aerospace Corp ., ÅAC of Uppsala, Sweden, TAMU will record its observations in an extended temperature range 4 MB magnetic random access memory (MRAM) from

Freescale Semiconductor

“Freescale’s 4 Mb MRAM device replaces both flash and battery-backed SRAM in Angstrom’s module for the SpriteSat,” said Dr. Johan Akerman, head of the Applied Spintronics Group at Sweden’s

The Royal Institute of Technology

in Kista, who helped design and build the electronics package. “The ability to reconfigure critical programs and route definitions during various stages of a satellite mission is a significant benefit.”

The MRAM stores program data and FPGA configuration data on a single memory, allowing Angstrom Aerospace to reduce all storage requirements to one chip, reducing board area. At the same time, the flexibility of MRAM storage allows the system to be reconfigured in space.

MRAM uses magnetic materials combined with conventional silicon circuitry to deliver the speed of SRAM with the non-volatility of flash in a single, unlimited-endurance device. MRAM devices combine the best features of non-volatile memory and RAM to enable “instant-on” capability and power loss protection in new classes of intelligent electronic devices. MRAM devices are used in a variety of applications, such as networking, security, data storage, gaming and printers. The extended temperature version is suitable for use in rugged application environments, such as military, aerospace and automotive designs.

Freescale introduced the MR2A16A 4 Mb device in 2006 as the world’s first commercially available MRAM for customers looking for an alternative that could replace flash, SRAM and EEPROM with a single chip and eliminate battery-backup for SRAM. Since then, the product has been awarded a 2007 Design News Golden MouseTrap Product of the Year award, 2007 R&D 100 Award, Electronic Products’ 2006 Product of the Year, EE Times China’s 2007 Memory Product of the Year, LSI’s 2007 Excellence Award in conjunction with ESEC Japan and the 2007 In-Stat/Microprocessor Report’s Product of the Year Award in innovation. Additionally, Freescale’s MRAM device was selected as a finalist in

EDN

’s 2006 Innovation Awards and EE Times’ 2006 ACE Awards.

C.G. Masi , senior editor
Control Engineering News Desk
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