Technology Partnerships from the Mars Rover Curiosity

Sept. 2, 2014
On Aug. 6, 2012, the Mars rover Curiosity ended its six-month-long journey to Mars with a successful landing.

In addition to its radionuclide battery, which provides energy for years, it has other impressive equipment on board: a gas chromatograph for uncovering organic compounds; a spectrometer to analyze the composition of rocks collected by the 2-meter-long robotic arm; and a neutron source to look for hydrogen in the ground. It also includes a range of technologies that have found or may soon find their way into laboratories, industrial plants and commercial products here on Earth. Here’s a look at a few of the industrial automation suppliers whose products have met the rigorous demands of this space program:

• The 1 ton Mars rover Curiosity—the largest and most complex space exploration robot ever constructed—was virtually designed, simulated and built before it was physically created using Siemens Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software. Engineers at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Labs used Siemens’ NX and Teamcenter software to design everything from the initial rover concept to simulations of the harsh space environment.

• Maxon Precision Motors’ MR Encoder technology is built into the electromechanical joints of the rover. These magnetic sensors are mounted on the drive shafts and are responsible for controlling the motors. In addition, Maxon’s development services for the drive systems played a part in the 900 kg rover being able to carry out its Mars mission successfully.

• The rover’s most complex device, its robotic drilling arm, includes two customized sensors from Futek Advanced Sensor Technology.According to Natasha Niezgoda, spokesperson for Futek, within the drill sits athru-hole load cellthat the company manufactured to measure the forces of the drill bit as it bores into the Martian terrain. Futek was commissioned by NASA to develop this cryogenic donut load cell specifically for Curiosity’s drilling arm. Meanwhile, a multi-axial sensorsits at the base of the rover’s robotic arm, monitoring the arm’s maneuvers. This three-component sensor provides feedback to the operating device, identifying the levels of torsion and force applied to the arm. These precision instruments helped the rover drill a hole 0.63 inch wide and 2.5 inches deep into the Martian bedrock.

• PI Physik Instrumente’s contribution to the Mars mission, the PI Ceramic monolithic piezo actuators (PICMAs), were put to use in the chemistry and mineralogy instrument (CheMin), whose purpose is to determine if water was present in the formation of Martian rocks and soil. It requires a sample handling system to feed mineral powder samples into individual sample cells and then shake the cells at variable amplitudes and frequencies. The precisely controlled vibrations are generated by the multilayer piezo actuators.

• miCos, also part of the PI family of companies, supplied a specially modified and space-qualified MT-40 linear positioning stage for the rover’s chemistry and camera instrument (ChemCam). ChemCam, which consists of a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer and a high-resolution imaging camera, also by PI miCos, determines which rocks in the vicinity of the rover warrant a closer examination with in-situ instruments. Every component in the stage—from the stepper motor to the crossed roller bearings and limit switches—had to be optimized to eliminate the possibility of failure or performance loss due to the violent shocks and vibration experienced during launch and landing.

• Energy-harvestingsensors, also called thermoelectric generators, are not yet in widespread use on the rovers, but these technologies have progressed beyond trials and new product announcements. Such devices, which convert a temperature differential into electricity, are used to generate operating power for the rover from the heat created while it moves. This ability would allow the vehicle to continue to work even in the absence of light required by its solar-powered sensors. The U.S. Department of Energy is currently using such devices in its work with BMW and GM to turn heat waste from engines and exhaust into power for an automobile’s electrical systems.

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