News & media

Major investment gives new boost to microtechnology research for space

2008-02-13

VINNOVA and the Swedish National Space Board are making a major investment in research and development of pioneering space technology at Uppsala University’s Ångström Laboratory. It involves a three- to five-year commitment to extremely miniaturized subsystems for space applications.

Work at Ångström Space Technology Center, ÅSTC, at Ångström Laboratory targets highly advanced and multifaceted microtechnology with roots in semiconductor technology.  This technology has been extensively used in very diverse contexts.  Unlike microelectronics, which often merely transports electrical pulses, or ones and zeros, this broader microtechnology makes it possible to build entire instruments and machines that are the size of a pinhead.  However, these tiny instruments normally reach the size of a millimeter or a centimeter, consisting of nearly any imaginable material.
 
“Today we use everything from silicon and aluminum to diamond and silicon rubber, and we collaborate across nearly every engineering or scientific field.  Components are often constructed with a precision measuring in the millionths or thousands of a millimeter,” says Greger Thornell, who is now very pleased to be directing operations at ÅSTC.
 
ÅSTC was started seven years ago by professors Lars Stenmark and Jan-Åke Schweitz, with the active support of the Vice-Chancellor.  Together with doctoral students and engineers, they managed to make the division a world name, attracting the attention of NASA’s development center JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).  One example of a successful project is the development of millimeter-size rocket engines for precision steering of briefcase-size satellites.  In the engine’s exhaust channels, narrower than a strand of hair, spiral-shaped filaments were placed to give the propellant gas an extra boost, thereby saving fuel.
 
After that ÅSTC went through a period of growing pains, followed by impoverishment, since most of the doctoral candidates finished their degrees and four developmental companies were spun off.  The directors-general of VINNOVA and the National Space Board realized the strategic importance of the Center’s research and decided last year to invest in the revitalizing of operations there.
 
Today an academic core group has been established, and several exciting new research projects have been launched.  For example, scientists are studying how the performance of the micro-rockets can be improved even further, how tiny and extremely sensitive magnetic field sensors should be designed, and how small satellites might be able to communicate instantly and reliably when flying in formation.
 
“This field is extremely interesting, and the Uppsala researchers have shown that Sweden is right on the cutting edge when it comes to the microsystems for space applications coming out of ÅSTC,” says Christer Nilsson, National Space Board.
 
“We’ve been part of this from the outset, and we’re proud to have been able to contribute resources for this work.  If all goes according to plan, we at the National Space Board will continue our involvement in this technological field and hopefully lay the groundwork for a prosperous Swedish industry of the future.”
 
VINNOVA’s interest in ÅSTC lies primarily in its potential to bring about a Swedish industry based on new technology.
 
“And what we have in mind is not only space applications but also other fields of use that are ripe for miniaturization,” says Kaj Klarin, who appreciates their excellent collaboration with the National Space Board.
 
More information: Greger Thornell, Research Director at ÅSTC, cell phone: +46-18-471 71 26, e-mail: Greger.Thornell@angstrom.uu.se