How the Evolution of PCB Design Has Allowed SpaceX's Visions to Take Flight

March 24, 2017 Altium

 

Today, the new frontiers of spaceflight are explored by SpaceX. SpaceX is an ambitious venture to create a new reusable launch system and, ultimately, interplanetary travel. The most visible of these efforts is the Falcon series of rockets. Designed with the goals of reusability and reduced costs, the Falcon series is engineered around ease of manufacturing and assembly. What role does today’s PCB technology, and the computing power it brings, play in the world of SpaceX? Read on to find out more!

Today’s PCB design workflow and manufacturing approaches are the fastest, most intuitive, and most cost-effective ever. Anyone from a small startup to established engineering departments can create ambitious designs without compromise. It's had a particularly transformative effect on the space exploration industry, where self-sufficient firms like SpaceX have picked up where NASA left off. Cheap, reliable PCB technology means that SpaceX can do what couldn’t be done before. Four decades ago, however, the reality was quite different.

 

Space shuttle above the clouds
Advances in PCB design have enabled space exploration to reach new heights

 

Saturn V: One Small Step for PCBs, One Giant Leap for Mankind

In 1969, chances are you were too young to witness the biggest event of that year. NASA in its Apollo program launched the first successful exploratory mission to the Moon, beating the Soviet competition and sealing an American victory for the space race. However, the Saturn V rocket they used was unable to truly take advantage of PCB technology, which like many of you, was in its infancy. PCB’s then featured hand-laid-out traces, no integrated circuits, low component density and manual soldering. An exception to this was the Saturn V’s Apollo Guidance Computer or AGC. The 16-bit AGC provided guidance and navigation support and featured the first application of integrated circuits in a surface mount form factor. At the time NASA’s generous finances and unique collection of talent were the only way to make this familiar approach possible.

 

Space Shuttle: PCB Technology Really Takes Off

A little more than 10 years later, PCB’s and spaceflight underwent massive change. Following the success of the Apollo program, NASA set their sights on creating a reusable and reliable space vehicle to replace the Saturn rocket, ultimately known as the Space Shuttle that we are all familiar with today. Likewise, PCB design and manufacturing underwent a transformation of similar scale: integrated circuits, multi-layer boards, surface mount technology and automated manufacturing defined the industry. PCBs were evolving. This had an outstanding effect on the design of the Space Shuttle: computerization of operation and even entire mission phases. Five IBM AP-101 avionics computers, four operating simultaneously and one as an emergency backup, would auto-pilot the Shuttle. Capable of 480,000 instructions per second, this computer brought in state-of-the-art technology while being no larger than a shoebox. The hastening progress of PCB technology meant that the Space Shuttle could reliably use computer power previously associated with room-sized mainframes.

space shuttle taking off
Space shuttle, equipped with more advanced PCB technology, taking off!

 

SpaceX: PCB Technology Reaches New Heights

Today, SpaceX is one of the big names exploring new frontiers of spaceflight. Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX is an ambitious venture to create a new reusable launch system and, ultimately, interplanetary travel. The most visible of these efforts is the Falcon series of rockets. Designed with the goals of reusability and reduced costs, the Falcon series is engineered around ease of manufacturing and assembly. The genesis of the Falcon family and SpaceX itself stems from Musk’s early discovery that the cost of building a space vehicle is easily controlled through vertical integration. In other words, SpaceX independently produces the majority of the Falcon parts and carries out assembly in-house. The Falcon 9 rockets, the most recent focus of development, is a two-stage design engineered with a revolutionary landing system. On the return descent, the rocket rotates around 180 degrees and lands vertically, an incredible achievement towards a reusable rocket system.

 

Falcon 9 debut launch
On Feb 19th SpaceX debuted its Falcon 9 launch. Image credit: Nadezda Murmakova/shutterstock.com

 

What role does today’s PCB technology, and the computing power it brings, play in the world of SpaceX? For the Falcon 9 rockets, and for the whole concept of vertically landing, it’s in the flight and control computers. Modern PCB technology has not only made this system possible but entirely practical without compromise. Widely available, high performing integrated circuits and processor units, coupled with modern multi-layer boards have reduced the overall space requirements of PCB modules and keep down their cost. Rapid-response manufacturing, surface mount technology, and an ever-expanding catalog of usable off-the-shelf components mean that board designs can be flexible as needs change and available on short turnarounds. Most importantly, powerful and intuitive graphical PCB design software allow SpaceX designers the freedom to create these systems with ease. This is a great advantage for the Falcon 9 design. Highly redundant components, conventional processors and existing computer platforms are applied to make steadfast reliability a guarantee.

SpaceX might be pushing the boundaries of PCB technology to the atmospheric limit, but there’s no application that won’t benefit from powerful and innovative design. Professional PCB design software can let you make your design dreams a reality.  Whether you’re a first-time designer with big ideas for the next great gadget, or an experienced engineer looking to refine your workflow, Altium has the PCB tools you need to launch your next project.

 

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