Did you know that there is a space electronics testing facility in Jyväskylä? The Accelerator Laboratory of the JYU Department of Physics is one of the three radiation testing facilities sponsored by the European Space Agency (ESA). The facility, known as the RADiation Effects Facility (RADEF), tests components and electronics of devices from around the world that are to be sent into space. The goal is to ensure these can endure the demanding conditions in space.

At RADEF, the radiation conditions of space are simulated so the weak points of satellite components can be identified. This helps estimate the lifespan of satellites in their eventual orbits. Satellite components are tested by bombarding them with charged particles produced in the cyclotron of the Department of Physics. The components are subjected to high-speed particles of varying mass in order to detect the points where radiation is causing defects.

“Defects are hard to repair afterwards in space,” says the founder and director of the research facility, Professor Ari Virtanen from the Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä. “Particle beams can help us study how the particles affect the components of satellites, so that we can identify the most durable components and ensure maximum reliability and usability in space.”

Cosmic radiation, which comes mainly from the sun, is known quite exactly. Radiation conditions vary, however, from point to point in space: satellites orbiting close to Earth are affected by radiation differently than are those space probes sent to distant planets.

Laboratory Engineer Heikki Kettunen

“We are not actually creating any authentic space settings,” says Senior Researcher Arto Javanainen, who works at the research facility. “When we know the approximate orbit at which the satellite must operate, we can infer from the measurement results how well the component will work in the radiation conditions of that orbit.”

In addition to what is conducted at RADEF, ESA-sponsored testing takes place in Belgium and Switzerland. Each facility has its own expertise. RADEF is concentrated on heavy particles and electrons. For this reason, Jyväskylä-based tests serve a global body of customers, including agencies from North America (NASA), China and Japan, for instance.

“Many companies, mainly European ones, test their electronics here because we are a test facility sponsored by ESA. These include Airbus, Thales Alenia Space, Atmel, and Cobham,” says Laboratory Engineer Heikki Kettunen, who is also in charge of the research facility’s collaboration with companies.

More commissions from Europe in the future

In the future the facility will have an increasing amount of work. RADEF will soon be accelerating even higher-energy particles (15–16 MeV/nucleon), which are already in great demand. Currently, Texas A&M University in the US is the only place where these high-energy particles are used regularly for component testing.

“We aim to offer this service from the beginning of the next year,” says Kettunen. “It would make things easier for many companies operating in Europe because they would no longer need to go to America to test their devices.”

Testing a Jupiter space probe

Heikki Kettunen and Arto Javanainen testing a set of components using the electron accelerator.

In 2012, ESA decided to send a space probe called Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) to Jupiter. The purpose is to explore the largest planet in our solar system as well as its three largest moons. Due to the planet’s vast size, its magnetic field is up to ten times greater than that of Earth. Electrons coming from the sun are captured in Jupiter’s magnetic field, so the space probe will be bombarded with these electrons.

“At present, we are testing a set of components with ESA for a satellite to be launched in 2022,” says Kettunen. “For this we are using the electron accelerator received from Kuopio University Hospital. It produces electrons similar to those that the JUICE probe will encounter in Jupiter’s magnetic field. We will test electronics of JUICE’s devices for maximal reliability. The probe will first travel for eight years to Jupiter, where the explorations will then continue for about three years.”

Over two decades of growth

In America, various radiation tests have been conducted for decades, when Finland was still a rather unknown country in global space community. After the new cyclotron was built for the JYU Department of Physics 25 years ago, new kinds of commercial applications were also designed for the accelerator.

“In those days I started to actively attend conferences in this field, and through these I managed to spread the word about us,” Virtanen explains. “In 2002, ESA finally took interest in our work and they came here to test some of their components. It was discovered we have the needed expertise, because we got results corresponding to those reached at other test sites.”

A contract with ESA was signed in 2004. The Accelerator Laboratory was quickly developed into a research facility meeting their requirements, with an opening ceremony in spring 2005.

“We gradually became known around the world and now we can’t accept all the requests we receive for radiation testing. Annually, over 20 companies come here to make tests, and this also brings notable income for the whole Accelerator Laboratory,” says Javanainen.

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