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Flex circuits in deep space

While at this year’s Space Tech Expo in Pasadena, CA last month, I had the pleasure to visit with Pioneer Circuits, Inc. who have done some amazing work with flexible circuitry in deep space. They are the 4th largest consumer of Dupont Materials in the US for military and Space applications.

What really intrigued me when I visited their booth was the very long piece of flex circuitry draped across their table. See the image below.

I discussed Pioneer Circuit's flex cable designs for the Mars Rover with Dan Hansler, Applications Engineering Manager

I discussed Pioneer Circuit’s flex cable designs for the Mars Rover with Dan Hansler, Applications Engineering Manager

I asked Dan Hasler about their flexible cable design and where they might be used on the Mars Rovers. Hansler told me that there is one extended-length flex cable that powers the Rover’s mast. This is not an easy design feat to provide power to such a tall instrument while allowing it to fold down and lift things. Hasler said to imagine a typical circuit board, stretch it out, make it bendable, and make it advanced and reliable enough to withstand the surface of Mars.

The Mars 2020 extended length flex will again be built by Pioneer Circuits, the company that built the extended length circuit boards for all the previous rovers: Curiosity, Spirit and Pathfinder.

NASA/JPL’s Curiosity Rover succeeded through concurrent engineering from Pioneer Circuits which helped NASA’s JPL team to design the flex circuitry for the Curiosity Rover that landed on Mars in 2012. The rover and our flex have both outlasted its 2-year-mission goal on Mars. See below.

The Mars Curiosity Rover took this 'selfie' of a brown flex cable, designed by Pioneer Circuits, wrapped around and rising up its mast. The Mars 2020 Rover will have a similar design. (Image courtesy of NASA)

The Mars Curiosity Rover took this ‘selfie’ of a brown flex cable, designed by Pioneer Circuits, wrapped around and rising up its mast. The Mars 2020 Rover will have a similar design. (Image courtesy of NASA)

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) camera also contained a Pioneer Circuits Rigid Flex design. Rigid flex circuit boards consist of both flex and rigid PCB’s, as the name suggests. They deliver the stability of a rigid wiring board along with the flexibility of a flex wiring board. Because of the rigid flex boards’ enhanced performance, improved reliability, and maximized weight and space savings, they are typically used in Military, Aerospace and Medical end-use applications. See below.

Rigid flex circuit boards

Rigid flex circuit boards

Pioneer Circuits has a Book-Binder technology which was used on Cube Sats that went into space. This technology allows for much more complex designs such as the cube you see pictured above that went into a space exploration program. Staggered flex lengths are created to accommodate the necessary bend radius. With the book-binder, efficient use of space enables stress-free installation. Book-binders also enable 3D form factor with high layer rigid-flex.

Book-Binder technology for Cube Satellites (Image courtesy of Pioneer Circuits)

Book-Binder technology for Cube Satellites (Image courtesy of Pioneer Circuits)

See this inspiring video of the new explorer generation space craft and see why and how flexible circuitry and Rigid Flex circuits are used in this ultimate harsh environment of deep space exploration.

Other space programs in which Pioneer Circuits solutions will or have been used are as follows:

EUROPA MULTIPLE FLYBY MISSION – 2025

Europa’s Multiple Flyby Mission would conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon and would investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life using a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft that would perform repeated close flybys of the moon from a long, looping orbit around Jupiter. This project is planned to launch in 2025.

ORION CAPSULE

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) is a spacecraft intended to carry a crew of up to four astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit. Orion is intended to facilitate human exploration of asteroids and of Mars, as well as to provide a means of delivering or retrieving crew of supplies from the ISS if needed. The first mission to carry astronauts is not expected to take place until 2021 at the earliest.

JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE

The James Webb Space Telescope will be a large infrared telescope JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. Pioneer Circuits provided flex and rigid-flex assemblies used to send sign signals back to Earth.

DRAGON CAPSULE

The Dragon Capsule is a partially reusable spacecraft developed by SpaceX, an American private space transportation company based in Hawthorne, California. Dragon is launched into space by the SpaceX Falcon 9, two-state-to-orbit launch vehicle. Space X is developing a crewed version called the Dragon V2. During its maiden flight in December 2010, Dragon became the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. We supplied a 21-layer rigid-flex interconnect for the spacecraft.

DEEP SPACE NETWORK

The American Deep Space Network (DSN) is a world-wide network of large antennas and communication facilities, located in the United States (California), Spain (Madrid), and Australia (Canberra), that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions. It also performs radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe, and supports selected Earth-orbiting missions. We are proud to have developed a unique flex circuit assembly for the DSN.

GLAST

GLAST is a next generation high-energy gamma-ray observatory designed for making observations of celestial gamma-ray sources in the energy band extending from 10 MeV to more than 100 GeV. We worked with all three divisions of NASA's team to produce critical parts to meet NASA's launch window for GLAST. The four-layer extended length flex circuits we produced measured 34″ x 3.5″. Each flex assembly had up to 10 connectors with surface mount resistors as well.

NEW HORIZONS

NASA's New Horizons probe headed to a place never before visited by robotic probe from Earth: Pluto. On July 2015, the spacecraft completed a nearly-decade-long journey to fly by Pluto and reveal humanity's first close-up look at the distant dwarf planet. We contributed an 8-layer rigid-flex part for the camera of the probe and two rigid boards for communication and control.

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