Yet the RAD750, built in Manassas by BAE Systems, is precisely the sort of component that allowed Washington’s government contracting community to do what it does best: turn tried-and-true technology into a sophisticated explorer that will now spend the next two years on the Red Planet conducting groundbreaking experiments.
The innovation is in the integration.
The RAD750, measuring just 3.5-by-6 inches across its face, is the kind of part that makes the sum all the more powerful.
NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory “selected a standard, known, solid design that they could count on,” said Vic Scuderi, manager of satellite electronics at BAE. “You don’t want a $2.5 billion mission suddenly dependent on ... some new fancy technique.”
Lots of Washington area shops contributed technology to create Curiosity. Its landing was the equivalent of their London Olympics, the culmination of years of largely anonymous work all packed into “seven minutes of terror” — the term used to describe the time it took the Curiosity to enter the atmosphere around Mars, descend and then make its difficult landing on the planet.
“It’s that coming together part ... where easy, simple, I-wish-I-hadn’t-done-that kind of mistakes can happen,” Scuderi said.
Tried and true
Jim Armor, vice president of strategy and business development for ATK’s Beltsville-based space systems division, was up late watching the landing from his home.
The company developed a range of spaceflight hardware, including the deployment mechanism for a remote sensing mast that allows the Curiosity to use several cameras.
The deployment mechanism is best thought of as a complex knuckle that allows the Curiosity to lift its equivalent of a finger — in this case, an arm equipped with cameras.
“We’ve done much more complicated ones than this, but this one had to be fairly rugged [and] designed to work in a dusty environment,” Armor said.
The company also helped NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory design one of the Curiosity’s scientific instruments, known as the chemistry/mineralogy — or CheMin — instrument, which analyzes the rocks and soil on Mars.
Both McLean-based ITT Exelis and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin saw the Mars mission use some of their time-tested technology.
Exelis operates and maintains multiple antennae at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, the California home to an antenna about the size of a football field that communicates with multiple spacecraft, including the Voyager spacecraft that launched about three decades ago. It and another antenna also helped the Mars rover during its final approach into Mars’s atmosphere.
Lockheed Martin’s Denver-based space systems division assembled the capsule that protected the rover on its way to the surface of Mars. The capsule is made up of a heat shield and a back shell, both of which separated from the rover before it landed.