Behavior Prediction Tools Strengthen Nanoelectronics

NASA Technology

Several years ago, NASA started making plans to send robots to explore the deep, dark craters on the Moon. As part of these plans, NASA needed modeling tools to help engineer unique electronics to withstand extremely cold temperatures.

According to Jonathan Pellish, a flight systems test engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center, “An instrument sitting in a shadowed crater on one of the Moon’s poles would hover around 43 K”—that is, 43 kelvin, equivalent to -382 °F. Such frigid temperatures are one of the main factors that make the extreme space environments encountered on the Moon and elsewhere so extreme.

altRadiation is another main concern. “Radiation is always present in the space environment,” says Pellish. “Small to moderate solar energetic particle events happen regularly and extreme events happen less than a handful of times throughout the 7 active years of the 11-year solar cycle.” Radiation can corrupt data, propagate to other systems, require component power cycling, and cause a host of other harmful effects.

In order to explore places like the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and Mars, NASA must use electronic communication devices like transmitters and receivers and data collection devices like infrared cameras that can resist the effects of extreme temperature and radiation; otherwise, the electronics would not be reliable for the duration of the mission.

Technology Transfer

Since 1987, NASA has partnered with Huntsville, Alabama-based CFD Research Corporation (CFDRC), a company that specializes in engineering simulations and innovative designs and prototypes for aerospace and other industries. A few years ago, CFDRC received funding from Marshall Space Flight Center’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to refine an existing software tool to predict the behavior of electronics in the cold, radiation-filled environment of space.

During the first phase of its work, in collaboration with Georgia Tech, CFDRC enhanced and demonstrated a technology called NanoTCAD for predicting the response of silicon-germanium (SiGe) semiconductor technology to radiation. During its second phase, the company demonstrated and validated NanoTCAD for temperature ranges from -382–266 °F.

Marek Turowski, the director of the nanoelectronic and plasma technology group at CFDRC explains how, as electronic parts become smaller, the effects of radiation and temperature become more severe. “When radiation particles bombard a microchip, it is like hail hitting a car,” he says.

Even though hail may not damage a large truck, the same hail could cause significant damage to a truck the size of a toy. Likewise, as electronic devices decrease in size, radiation particles can damage them more easily.

Being able to predict the behavior of nanoelectronics in the extreme space environment reduces the risk of failure during a critical NASA mission. Using NanoTCAD, designers can better evaluate performance and response of electronics early in the design stage, thereby reducing the costs and testing time involved. As Turowski explains it, “The purpose of NanoTCAD tools and models is to predict the behavior of electronics in space before they actually go to space. The prediction happens on the computer screen and accurately takes temperature and radiation into account.”

Pellish says NanoTCAD has already been used to evaluate key technologies for the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), scheduled for launch in 2016. ICESat-2 will look at polar ice, sea-level change, vegetation canopy height, and climate. “The NanoTCAD research on SiGe semiconductor technology processes provided a portion of the necessary insight into this technology so that it can be used in space,” he says.


altNanoTCAD software is now available from CFDRC as a nanotechnology computer aided design (CAD) tool to predict the effects of extreme thermal and radiation environments on electronic systems. It is also used by CFDRC in its modeling and simulation services provided to the aerospace industry. The “nano” part of the product’s name means the software can address nano-size devices while “TCAD” stands for “technology computer aided design.”

“It solves basic physics equations,” says Turowski. “It looks at how electrons flow, how fields inside the devices behave, and how the varying temperature affects their behavior.”

Today, CFDRC’s NanoTCAD customers include electronic chip designers at Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt University. The electronics, chips, circuits, and devices that the universities are modeling with NanoTCAD are often for NASA missions. The European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency are also potential customers of CFDRC’s NASA-improved technology.

The tool is also being employed for Department of Defense applications for space communication and surveillance systems for satellites. Entities like the Air Force and Navy design electronics that can suffer the same problems as NASA spacecraft. CFDRC also uses NanoTCAD to provide modeling, simulations, and radiation-hardening design services to national nuclear laboratories and commercial satellite designers.

According to CFDRC, the technology has led to approximately $2 million in revenue for the company, created new jobs, and led to partnerships with other defense and industrial customers.

“NASA has given us the opportunity to develop valuable technology,” says Turowski. “Now the technology is being adapted and enhanced for every new generation of electronics.”

Whether it is for the Moon, on-orbit, or other applications, CFDRC’s work with NASA is helping to make future space missions possible.


Need an electronic timecard system? NASA has the code for you

Over the years, NASA has famously invented a number of technologies that have since entered into many of our everyday lives. For instance, NASA had a hand in the invention of insulin pumpsscratch-resistant lenses and memory foam(though not, despite what you may have heard, in the invention of Tang, Velcro or Teflon; it just helped make them popular). We may all soon benefit again from NASA brainpower thanks to the recent release of lots and lots of software code developed by and for the space agency.


Photo of the cover of NASA's 2014 Software Catalog



Last week, NASA’s Technology Transfer Program published its Software Catalog, which documents code for over 1,000 projects which is being made available to the public. The catalog documents what the code does, what (if any) restrictions are placed on it (some code is released to the general public, some for use by U.S. citizens only, some only for use on behalf of the government) and how to get it. In most cases, you can’t just download this code; you have to request access to it explaining what you plan to use it for.

Of course, you’re probably thinking, “Cool, but this doesn’t really affect me, since I’m not designing a spacecraft to go into orbit or to the moon.” While it’s true that lots of this code has to do with pretty NASA-y type of stuff like aeronautics, life support systems and propulsion (e.g. Advanced Ducted Propfan Analysis Code, which “solves tightly coupled internal/external flows through future-concept short-duct turbofan engines”) , there’s also quite a bit of other code that may be of interest to your business or for personal use. 

I took a spin through the catalog, which is currently only available in PDF form but will reportedly be made available via a searchable database and online repository, and identified some of the more mundane code that may actually be of use or interest.

Business Tools

Use these NASA-developed tools to help with the day-to-day tasks of running your company:


  • Electronic Timecard System – “The Electronic Timecard System can be utilized by any business or organization wishing to streamline its payroll department procedures. The automated system minimizes the consumption of paper and eliminates the need for weekly pick-up and delivery of time sheets. The tool also simplifies the daily recording of time worked by employees, and it allows employees to “sign” their “timecards” electronically at the end of each week. Supervisors can review an employee’s electronic timecards daily and sign them electronically.”

  • Goal Performance Evaluation System  – “The Goal Performance Evaluation System (GPES) is an innovative interactive software application that implements, validates, and evaluates an organization’s performance by the achievements of its employees. The tool has been used for strategic planning, employee performance management, and center-wide communication. The system is Web-based and uses a relational database to host information.

  • Can I Buy – “The Can I Buy tool automates processes used to request and approve procurements. The software allows registered users to create, submit, un-submit, and delete purchase requests. Different capabilities are provided depending on a person’s ‘role.’ Privileged roles include branch head, assistant branch head, secretary, resource analyst, credit card specialist, and tool administrator. Email is the medium of communication in the system.”


Developer/admin tools

Software developers and system administrators may find some useful tools in the catalog such as:


  • Ballast: Balancing Load Across Systems – “Ballast is a tool for balancing user load across Secure Shell Handler (SSH) servers. The system includes a load-balancing client, a lightweight data server, scripts for collecting system load, and scripts for analyzing user behavior. Because Ballast is invoked as part of the SSH login process, it has access to user names. This capability, which is not available in traditional approaches, enables Ballast to perform user-specific load balancing. In addition, Ballast is easy to install, induces near-zero overhead, and has fault-tolerant features in its architectures that will eliminate single points of failure.”

  • Multi-threaded Copy Program – “MCP is a high-performance file copy utility that achieves performance gains through parallelization. Multiple files and parts of single files are processed in parallel using multiple threads on multiple processors. The program employs the OpenMP and MPI programming models.”

  • NASA World Wind Java (WWJ) Software Development Kit (SDK) and Web Mapping Services – “NASA World Wind is an intuitive software application supporting the interactive exploration of a variety of data presented within a geospatial context. The technology offers a 3D graphics user experience with seamless, integrated access to a variety of online data sources via open-standards protocols.”


Fun stuff

NASA has developed some tools which may not be particularly useful to most of us, but which still sound like they’d be fun to tinker around with, such as:


  • Spacecraft Docking Simulation – “This simulation is a simplified version of the rendezvous and docking scenario performed by Space Shuttle astronauts docking at the International Space Station (ISS).”

  • NASA Forecast Model Web – “NFMW reads weather forecast models outputs; subsets the data to the region of interest; interpolates the data to the specified size; generates a visualization of the data using colors, contour lines, or arrows; and sends the visualization to the client.”

  • Station Spacewalk Game App – “This video game features simulations of Extravehicular Activities (EVAs) conducted by NASA astronauts on missions to the International Space Station.”


While none of the offerings in the catalog may have the impact of, say, cochlear implants, it seems like there are still useful nuggets here. Or maybe you just want to contribute back to NASA by helping them out with their code? Either way, take a look and have fun!