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Space Race Fuels Sky-High Demand for Specialized Semiconductors, Says Korean Aerospace Expert

In a recent presentation, Lee Woo-jun, a senior researcher at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, shed light on the stark contrast between the cost of standard commercially available semiconductors and their counterparts designed for space applications. According to his analysis, while a typical 512MB SDRAM memory chip can be purchased for approximately $2.25 to $18.75, a similar specification chip built for space use is priced at an eye-watering $2,250 to $7,500, marking a cost increase of up to 1,000 times.

The considerable price disparity, according to Lee, is attributable to the rigorous testing and high-quality performance required by space semiconductors. These components must operate reliably under extreme conditions such as vast temperature variations, significant impacts, and cosmic radiation. The small market size for these specialized products further adds to their steep price.

There is a burgeoning interest in ‘space parts’, including semiconductors, especially in South Korea. This interest has been spurred by the successful launches of the Korean Nuri launch vehicle in June 2021 and the Danuri lunar probe in August 2022. Subsequent to these events, President Yoon Seok-yeol unveiled an ambitious roadmap for South Korea’s space economy. The plan encompasses the development of a moon-capable launch vehicle engine within five years, achieving a lunar landing and resource extraction by 2032, and establishing the technology to reach Mars by 2045. The formation of the Korea Aerospace Administration, a presidential commitment, is also underway.

For adoption in spacecraft, space semiconductors need to meet far more stringent reliability standards than their commercial counterparts. They must endure extreme temperatures, substantial vibrations and shocks from rocket launches, and resist cosmic radiation. Space-grade semiconductors usually undergo ten years of additional design modifications and reliability testing after their commercial release before they are integrated into spacecraft.

Lee anticipates a boom in the space semiconductor market, thanks in part to Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. The burgeoning demand for space exploration and travel is expected to stimulate an impressive expansion of the space semiconductor market.

On a related note, the Advanced Semiconductor Safety Innovation Conference (ASSIC) 2023, hosted by QRT, Korea’s largest semiconductor reliability evaluation company, is slated for May 25th. The conference will feature a host of global semiconductor experts discussing the reliability evaluation methodology, market trends, and technological advancements in the fields of autonomous driving and space semiconductors. The conference is free to attend, with Korean subtitles available for presentations by international speakers.

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