We recently obtained a clock that flew on a Soyuz space mission.1 The clock, manufactured in 1984, is much more complex inside than you'd expect, with over 100 integrated circuits on ten circuit boards. In this blog post, I examine the clock's circuitry and find that it needed so many chips because it was implemented with simple TTL logic. The clock also provides a glimpse into the little-known world of Soviet aerospace electronics and how it compares to American technology.
"Onboard space clock" from a Soyuz mission. The clock provides the time, an alarm, and a stopwatch.
The Soyuz series of spacecraft was designed for the Soviet space program as part of the race to the Moon. Soyuz first flew in 1966 and has made more than 140 flights over the past 50 years. The spacecraft (below) consists of three parts. The round section on the left is the orbital or habitation module, holding cargo, equipment, and living space. The descent module in the middle is the only part that returns to Earth; the astronauts are seated in the descent module during launch and reentry. Finally, the service module on the right has the main engine, solar panels, and other systems.
The descent module contains the spacecraft's control panel (below).2 Note the digital clock in the upper left. Early Soyuz spacecraft used an analog clock, but from 1996 to 2002, the spacecraft used a digital clock.3 The digital clock was also used in the Mir space station. The clock was eliminated from later Soyuz spacecraft, which used two computer screens on the control panel in place of the earlier controls.
A closer look at the clock
The diagram below shows the clock's labels translated into English. The clock has three functions: the time, an alarm, and a stopwatch. The "Clock of Current Time"5 mode shows the current Moscow time on the six upper LED digits, while "Announcement" shows the alarm time. The alarm can be set to a particular time; at that time, the clock triggers a relay activating an external circuit in the spacecraft.4 The clock is set using the "Correction" mode; digits are incremented using the "Enter" button. The lower half of the unit is the stopwatch; the bottom four LEDs display elapsed minutes and seconds. The lower pushbutton stops, starts, or resets the stopwatch.6 Finally, the power switch at the right turns the clock on.
Front of the clock. The red text is the translation of the Russian labels into English.
We wanted to see what was inside the clock, of course, so Marc unscrewed the cover and removed it from the clock. This revealed a dense stack of circuit boards inside. The clock was much more complex than I expected, with ten circuit boards crammed full of surface-mount ICs and other components. The components are mounted on two-layer printed-circuit boards, a common construction technique. The boards use a mixture of through-hole components and surface-mount components. That is, components such as resistors and capacitors were mounted by inserting their leads through holes in the boards. The surface-mount integrated circuits, on the other hand, were soldered to pads on top of the board. This is more advanced than 1984-era American consumer electronics, which typically used larger through-hole integrated circuits and didn't move to surface-mount ICs until the late 1980s. (American aerospace computers, in contrast, had used surface-mount ICs since the 1960s.)
Space clock from Soyuz with the cover removed.
One interesting feature of the clock is that the boards are connected by individual wires that are bundled into wiring harnesses (below). (I expected the boards to plug into a backplane, or be connected by ribbon cables.) The boards have rows of pins along the sides, with wires soldered to these pins. These wires were gathered into bundles, wrapped in plastic, and then carefully laced into wiring harnesses that were tied to the boards.
The clock has point-to-point wires, wrapped into neat harnesses.
At first, we thought that further disassembly of the clock would be impossible without unsoldering all the wires, but then we realized that the wiring harnesses were designed so the boards could be opened like a book (see below). This allowed us to examine the boards more closely. Inconveniently, some pairs of boards were soldered together at the front by short wires, so we couldn't see both sides of these boards.
The wiring bundles are arranged so the boards can swing apart.
In the photo above, you can see the numerous integrated circuits in the clock. These are mostly 14-pin "flat pack" integrated circuits in metal packages, unlike contemporary American integrated circuits which were usually packaged in black epoxy. There are also some 16-pin integrated circuits, encased in pink ceramic.
The circuitry inside
The next step was to examine the circuitry in more detail, which I'll discuss starting at the back of the clock. A 19-pin connector7 linked the clock to the rest of the spacecraft. The spacecraft provided the clock with 28 volts through this connector, as well as external timing pulses and stopwatch control signals. The clock could signal the spacecraft through relay contacts when the alarm time was reached.
This 19-pin connector interfaces the clock to the spacecraft.
The two circuit boards at the back of the clock are the power supply, which was more complex than I expected. The first board (below) is a switching power supply that converts the spacecraft's 28-volt power to the 5 volts required by the integrated circuits. The round ceramic components are inductors, ranging from simple coils to complex 16-pin inductors. The control circuitry includes two op amps in metal can packages. Two other packages that look like integrated circuits each hold four transistors. Next to them, a bullet-shaped Zener diode sets the output voltage level. The large round switching power transistor is visible in the middle of the board. You might expect the power supply to be a simple buck converter. However, the power supply uses a more complicated design to provide electrical isolation between the spacecraft and the clock. I'm not sure, though, why isolation was necessary.8
Board 1 implements a switching power supply to produce 5 volts for the clock.
Many of the components in the power supply look different from American components. While American resistors are usually labeled with colored bands, the Soviet resistors are green cylinders with their values printed on them. The Soviet diodes have orange rectangular packages (below), unlike the usual cylindrical American diodes. The power transistor in the middle of the board is round, lacking the metal flanges of American power transistors in "TO-3" packages. I don't think the Soviet packaging is better or worse, but it's interesting to see how components from the two countries diverged.
The power supply uses 1 amp diodes in rectangular orange packages. The "OC" indicates a higher-quality military part.
The second board is also part of the power supply, but is much simpler. It has inductors and capacitors to filter the power, as well as a linear voltage regulator chip (pink) to produce 15 volts for the op amp ICs in the first board. The voltage regulator chip has two large metal tabs on the bottom that were soldered to the circuit board to dissipate heat. Strangely, the board has three large holes in the right side. The obvious explanation would be that these holes made room for tall components, a situation that arises on another board. However, there are no components that fit the holes on this board. Thus, I suspect this board was originally designed for a different device and reused in the clock.
Power supply board 2 is half-empty, with the right half apparently acting as a heat sink.
The remaining boards are filled with digital logic integrated circuits. Board 3 (below) and board 5 (which is similar) implement the current time and alarm time functions. Each board contains six BCD counter chips for the six digits (hours, minutes, and seconds).9 In addition, each digit counter requires a logic chip to control when it is incremented and another chip to control when it is reset, depending on whether the clock is being set or is running. (This is one reason why so many chips are required.) The pink chip on the board controls which digit is modified when setting the clock.10
Board 3 is filled with digital logic integrated circuits. Pins on either side connect the board to the wiring harnesses.
Board 4 (below) has two functions. First, it controls whether the clock displays the current time or the alarm time. This is implemented with a selection chip for each digit. Second, the board signals the spacecraft when the current time reaches the alarm time. This is implemented with multiple chips to step through each digit, compare the times, and determine if they match. Thus, even though the functions of this board seem simple, they require a whole board of chips. The connections at the bottom of the board link board 4 to board 5. The board is connected to board 3 through the wiring harness.
Board 4 selects between the current time and the alarm time. It also compares the two values to determine when the alarm time has been reached.
Some of the boards have more circuitry than just digital logic. For instance, boards 6 and 7 have pulse transformers to electrically isolate the control signals fed into the clock through the 19-pin connector. (In modern circuits, this role would be performed by an optoisolator.) These transformers look a bit like mushrooms or miniature water towers, and can be seen in the photo below. Board 7 also has a quartz crystal, the metal rectangle below.11
Board 7 has a 1 MHz crystal that provides the timing signals for the clock. It also has three round pulse transformers that isolate the control signals from the spacecraft.
The two functions of board 7 (below) are to generate the clock's timing pulses and to implement the stopwatch. The quartz crystal generates accurate 1 megahertz pulses. These pulses are reduced to one-second pulses by six BCD counters; each counter chip divides the frequency by 10. These timing pulses are used by the rest of the clock. To implement the stopwatch, the board has four BCD counters for the four digits. It also has control logic to start, stop, and reset the stopwatch. The three pulse transformers allow the spacecraft to control the stopwatch when certain events happen. Additional chips handle these mode changes.
Board 7 contains the stopwatch circuitry, as well as the quartz crystal that generates timings for the whole clock. Wires along the front connect the board to Board 6.
Boards eight and nine drive the LED displays. Each LED digit requires a chip to illuminates the appropriate segments of the 7-segment LED based on the BCD (binary-coded decimal) value. These BCD-to-7-segment driver chips are the pink 16-pin chips on the board.12 Since the clock displays 10 digits in total, 10 driver chips are used. Eight driver chips are on board 8, while board 9 has two chips along with numerous current-limiting resistors for the LEDs. The switches to control the clock are also visible in the photo below.
Board 8 is an LED driver board holding eight 7-segment driver chips. Board 9 (underneath) has two more driver chips and many resistors.
Finally, board 10 (below) holds the ten LED digits. Each digit consists of a seven-segment LED, along with a comma. I think one of the commas is wired up to indicate something; we'll find out what when we power up the clock.
Board 10 holds the ten LED digits. Photo from Marc Verdiell.
Soviet integrated circuits
Next, I'll discuss the integrated circuits used in the clock. The clock is built mostly from TTL integrated circuits, a type of digital logic that was popular in the 1970s through the 1990s. (If you've done hobbyist digital electronics, you probably know the 7400-series of TTL chips.) TTL chips were fast, inexpensive and reliable. Their main drawback, however, was that a TTL chip didn't contain much functionality. A basic TTL chip contained just a few logic gates, such as 4 NAND gates or 6 inverters, while a more complex TTL chip implemented a functional unit such as a 4-bit counter. Eventually, TTL lost out to CMOS chips (the chips in modern computers), which use much less power and are much denser.
Because each chip in the Soyuz clock didn't do very much, the clock required many boards of chips to perform its functions. For example, each digit of the clock requires a counter chip, as well as a couple of logic chips to increment and clear that digit as needed, and a chip to drive the associated 7-segment LED display. Since the clock displays 10 digits, that's 40 chips already. Additional chips handle the buttons and switches, implement the alarm, keep track of the stopwatch state, run the oscillator, and so forth, pushing the total to over 100 chips.
One nice thing about Soviet ICs is that the part numbers are assigned according to a rational system, unlike the essentially random numbering of American integrated circuits.13 Two letters in the part number indicate the function of the chip, such as a logic gate, counter, flip flop, or decoder. For example, the IC below is labeled "Δ134 ΛБ2A". The series number, 134, indicates the chip is a low-power TTL chip. The "Л" (L) indicates a logic chip (Логические), with "ЛБ" indicating NAND/NOR logic gates. Finally, "2" indicates a specific chip in the ЛБ category. (The 134ЛБ2 chip's functionality is two 4-input NAND gates and an inverter, a chip that doesn't have an American counterpart.) 14
Two integrated circuits inside the clock.
The logos on the integrated circuits reveal that they were manufactured by a variety of companies. Some of the chips in the clock are shown below, along with the name of the manufacturer and its English translation. More information on Soviet semiconductor logos can be found here and here.
By looking up the logo on each chip, the manufacturer can be determined.
Comparison with US technology
How does the Soyuz clock compare with US technology? When I first looked at the clock I would have guessed it was manufactured in 1969, not 1984, based on the construction and the large number of simple flat-pack chips. In comparison, American technology in 1984 produced the IBM PC/AT and the Apple Macintosh. It seemed absurd for the clock to use boards full of TTL chips a decade after the US had produced single-chip digital watches.16 However, the comparison turned out to be not so simple.
To compare the Soyuz clock with contemporary 1980s American space electronics, I looked at a board from the Space Shuttle's AP-101S computer.17 The photo below shows circuitry from the Soyuz clock (left) and the Shuttle computer (right). Although the Shuttle computer is technologically more advanced, the gap was smaller than I expected. Both systems were built from TTL chips, although the Shuttle computer used a faster generation of chips. Many Shuttle chips are slightly more complex; note the larger 20-pin chips at the top of the board. The large white chip is significantly more complex; it is an AMD Am2960 memory error correction chip. The Shuttle's printed-circuit board is more advanced, with multiple layers rather than two layers, allowing the chips to be packed 50% more densely. At the time, the USSR was estimated to be about 8 to 9 years behind the West in integrated circuit technology;15 this is in line with the differences I see between the two boards.
The Soyuz clock board (left) and Space Shuttle computer board (right), to the same scale. Both use surface-mount TTL chips.
What surprised me, though, was the similarities between the Shuttle computer and the Soviet clock. I expected the Shuttle computer to use 1980s microprocessors and be a generation ahead of the Soyuz clock, but instead the two systems both use TTL technology, and in many cases chips with almost identical functionality. For example, both boards use chips that implement four NAND gates. (See if you can find the 134ΛБ1A chip on the left and the 54F00 on the right.)
Why does the Soyuz clock contain over 100 chips instead of being implemented with a single clock chip? Soviet integrated circuit technology was about 8 years behind American technology and TTL chips were a reasonable choice at the time, even in the US. Since each TTL chip doesn't do very much, it takes boards full of chips to implement even something simple like a clock.
The next step will be to power up the clock and see the clock in operation. I've been studying the power supply so we can make this happen. I plan to write more about the power supply and other parts of the clock, so follow me @kenshirriff for details. also have an RSS feed. Until then, you can watch Marc's video showing the disassembly of the space clock: