McDonnell Develops Chip for Use in Space
McDonnell Douglas Corp. Tuesday announced that its Huntington Beach astronautics subsidiary has developed a computer chip, made with an advanced material able to withstand high levels of radiation, that could become the brains of space-based computer systems.
Such a computer might someday become part of a “Star Wars” defense system or operate weather, communications or navigational satellites.
The company said its new chip, made from gallium arsenide rather than the traditional silicon, is the first microprocessor of this material to pass the industry’s testing standards.
Gallium arsenide, a compound fused from the rare element gallium and arsenic, is considered the wave of the future for the advanced supercomputers required by the military and other specialty users.
Although several companies have developed other electronic components with the new material, McDonnell Douglas is the first to use it successfully for a microprocessor, the tiny chip that actually controls the operations of a computer. Nevertheless, analysts treated the announcement as more of a technological breakthrough than a boon for the aerospace giant’s financial future.
“It’s interesting, it’s nice and it shows that the company is with-it technically,” said Christopher Demish, a defense industry analyst with First Boston in New York. “But don’t look for any big events in the near term. In the great scheme of things for the company, it doesn’t mean much.”
Bill Geideman, manager of McDonnell Douglas’ microprocessor program in Huntington Beach, said the company eventually plans to build a computer to be deployed in space using gallium arsenide chips exclusively.
Although analysts suggested that such a computer could operate weapons deployed in the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, program, Geideman declined to discuss specific military applications of the machine. Instead, Geideman said the computers could be used in weather, communications and navigational satellites.
Nevertheless, Geideman said the McDonnell Douglas gallium arsenide project has received a $13-million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.
Gallium arsenide is particularly suited for use in space because it is able to withstand the higher levels of radiation that naturally occur there. Additionally, analysts said, the material is better suited than silicon for use in weapons that might be involved in a nuclear war.
The advanced material is also being used on Earth by supercomputer makers because it conducts electronic impulses faster than silicon and allows the computer to use far less power.
However, analysts say the military is the biggest customer so far. According to Gene Miles, a consulting analyst for the market research firm of Dataquest in San Jose, the military and aerospace accounted for about 75% of the estimated $100 million of worldwide gallium arsenide chip sales last year.
By 1990, Miles said the market for gallium arsenide chips is expected to exceed $1 billion, with military applications accounting for just 30% of sales. The remainder, he said, would be shared by business computers, industrial applications and communications equipment.