A prototype small, lightweight micro Sun sensor (MSS) has been flight qualified as part of the attitude- determination system of a spacecraft or for Mars surface operations. The MSS has previously been reported at a very early stage of development (NPO-30867) in NASA Tech Briefs, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 2004).

The Entire MSS fits into a compact package.

An MSS is essentially a miniature multiple-pinhole electronic camera combined with digital processing electronics that functions analogously to a sundial. A micromachined mask containing a number of microscopic pinholes is mounted in front of an active-pixel sensor (APS). Electronic circuits for controlling the operation of the APS, readout from the pixel photodetectors, and analog-to-digital conversion are all integrated onto the same chip along with the APS. The digital processing includes computation of the centroids of the pinhole Sun images on the APS. The spacecraft computer has the task of converting the Sun centroids into Sun angles utilizing a calibration polynomial.

The micromachined mask comprises a 500-μm-thick silicon wafer, onto which is deposited a 57-nm-thick chromium adhesion- promotion layer followed by a 200-nm-thick gold light absorption layer. The pinholes, 50 μm in diameter, are formed in the gold layer by photolithography. The chromium layer is thin enough to be penetrable by an amount of Sunlight adequate to form measurable pinhole images. A spacer frame between the mask and the APS maintains a gap of ≈1 mm between the pinhole plane and the photodetector plane of the APS.

To minimize data volume, mass, and power consumption, the digital processing of the APS readouts takes place in a single field-programmable gate array (FPGA). The particular FPGA is a radiation-tolerant unit that contains ≈32,000 gates. No external memory is used so the FPGA calculates the centroids in real time as pixels are read off the APS with minimal internal memory. To enable the MSS to fit into a small package, the APS, the FPGA, and other components are mounted on a single two-sided board following chip-on-board design practices (see figure).

This work was done by Carl Christian Liebe, Sohrab Mobasser, Chris Wrigley, Jeffrey Schroeder, Youngsam Bae, James Naegle, Sunant Katanyoutanant, Sergei Jerebets, Donald Schatzel, and Choonsup Lee of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Electronics/Computers category. NPO-43620

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Flight Qualified Micro Sun Sensor

(reference NPO-43620) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2007 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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