Journey into the sun: The Israeli technology onboard NASA’s solar probe

TowerJazz is a worldwide leader in CMOS image sensors, electronic chips that convert photons into electrons for digital processing that can be found in digital cameras, barcode readers, satellite pho

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October 2, 2018 18:27
2 minute read.
The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to the Sun at Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. August 12, 2018.. (photo credit: NASA/BILL INGALLS)

 
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In mid-August, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and began its seven-year journey to “touch” the sun, flying closer to Earth’s star than any other spacecraft.

Making the historic journey onboard the car-sized probe is a piece of Israeli technological pride: image-sensor technology engineered by the Migdal Ha’emek-based TowerJazz company.

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TowerJazz is a worldwide leader in CMOS image sensors, electronic chips that convert photons into electrons for digital processing that can be found in digital cameras, bar-code readers, satellite photographs and, now, a spacecraft destined for the sun.

The NASA spacecraft, which will fly some six million kilometers from the sun at its closest point, is carrying four instrument suites to examine the dynamic region close to the sun, of which the US Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) is the craft’s only imaging instrument.

The WISPR contains two telescopes to study the sun closer and with better resolution than ever before. The telescopes incorporate TowerJazz’s advanced and customized 0.18 micrometer CMOS image sensor technology, built at its microchip fabrication plant in Newport Beach, California.

The radiation-hardened sensors have been integrated into the telescopes’ focal-plane arrays by SRI International, an independent nonprofit research center.

The CMOS sensors will capture high-resolution images of the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, including coronal mass ejections and solar wind. The unprecedented images will provide a unique vantage point to forecast space weather events that have potentially dramatic effects on satellites, radio communications, and power grids on Earth.

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“TowerJazz has been working with SRI for several years to develop custom technology to support US government imaging applications,” said Mike Scott, director of TowerJazz USA Aerospace & Defense.

“We are very pleased to see our teamwork take flight in this exciting endeavor by NASA. We value our collaboration with SRI to deliver this highly advanced CMOS imaging technology to NRL and we look forward to more joint success in the future,” Scott said.

TowerJazz, or Tower Semiconducter Ltd., was founded in 1993 with the acquisition of American semiconductor manufacturer National Semiconductor’s wafer fabrication facility in Migdal Ha’emek. In 2008, Tower acquired Jazz Semiconductor and, in 2009, the combined companies launched as TowerJazz.

Today, the company operates two manufacturing facilities in Israel, two in the US and three additional facilities in Japan. The company has a global design center in Netanya, employs approximately 4,500 people and has sales offices in six countries.

The Parker Solar Probe’s first destination is Venus, where it will perform a gravity-assist maneuver to draw its orbit closer to the sun. At its closest point, Parker will travel some 37 million kilometers closer to the sun than the current record-holder, the Helios 2 spacecraft, and will reach a peak speed of up to 692,000 kph (430,000 mph).

The mission is named for Dr. Eugene Parker, the American astrophysicist who first developed the theory of supersonic solar wind in 1958. The Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA mission to be named for a living researcher.

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