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Industrial-Grade Automation Powers Mars Rover Curiosity

August 6, 2012 saw the successful landing of NASA’s rover, named Curiosity, on the planet Mars after a six-month journey through space.

Curiosity will explore the Gale Crater on Mars for two years looking for signs of life.
Curiosity will explore the Gale Crater on Mars for two years looking for signs of life.

After the downloading of new software and some test maneuvers, the unmanned vehicle was scheduled to start moving across the planet’s surface collecting data. Given the ruggedness of the trip and the terrain, and the technology advances available, it should come as no surprise that Curiosity was equipped with industrial-grade components and technology.

In contrast to earlier rovers Opportunity and Spirit, Curiosity can travel further distances on its six wheels and run longer without solar energy because a radionuclide battery gives it energy for years. And this is with impressive equipment on board: a gas chromatograph that may uncover organic compounds; a spectrometer that will analyze the composition of rocks collected by the 2-meter-long robot arm; and a neutron source that will look for hydrogen in the ground.

Energy-harvesting sensors
Thermoelectric devices are used to generate operating power for the rover from the heat created while it moves. The lets 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.

According to a report from IDTechEx, “Analysis of Energy Harvesting Applications,” although thermoelectric phenomena have been extensively used for heating and cooling applications, electricity generation has only seen limited use in niche applications. It is only in recent years that interest has increased regarding new applications of energy generation through thermoelectric harvesting, said the report.

By converting temperature differences into electrical energy, thermoelectric generators function by leveraging what is known as the Seebeck effect: the conversion of a temperature differential into electricity at the junction of two materials. Beyond providing assurance that these technologies have progressed beyond trials and new product announcements, provides best practice benchmark data and aids in identifying successful suppliers.

Motor-controlling encoders
MR Encoder technology from Maxon Motor ( is built into the electro mechanic joints of the rover. The 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 have also played a part in the 900 kilogram rover being able to carry out its Mars Mission successfully. Curiosity’s little brother Opportunity is still on its journey on Mars; for the past 8 years that rover has been exploring with the help of maxon motors.

PLM software virtualization
The one-ton, hyper-sophisticated, car-sized Mars Rover Curiosity is the largest and most complex space exploration robot ever constructed. And it was “virtually” designed, simulated and built before it was physically created using Siemens Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software. Siemens has uploaded images of the actual rover modeling a to a web page for viewing.

Engineers at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Labs used Siemen’s NX and Teamcenter software to design everything from the initial rover concept to simulations of the harsh space environment.  Elsewhere in this issue you can see how manufacturers are using the same kind of software to design everything from packaging machines to automotive assembly lines (“Will Digital Manufacturing Fulfill Its Promise?”).

Online you can find a video that shows some of the work the University of Leicester has done with NASA and Siemens PLM Software to help develop different spacecraft. The latest spacecraft can go from 13,000 mph to 0 mph in seven minutes, withstand temperatures of -135 to 1500 degrees Celsius, and travel in orbit for 8.5 months.

The plan is that the rover will explore the Gale Crater on Mars for signs of life for two years. According to the control center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, everything about Curiosity is so far going according to plan.

“It was a wonderful landing, everything looked extremely good,” said Adam Steltzner, NASA engineer and lead scientist of the JPL landing team.

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