Curiosity Rover’s arrival on Mars revives interest in space innovation

August 26, 2012

The computer selected to power Curiosity — the Mars rover hailed as proof America can still make big technological strides — wasn’t the cutting-edge device one might expect.

In fact, it was more of a workhorse, a single-board computer that dates back to 2000, traveled on its first mission in 2005 and now runs some 30 satellites. Another 50 will be carrying the technology within about two years.

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.

Lockheed and predecessor company Martin Marietta have provided space capsules for decades, and all eight of the ones used by Mars rovers, said Rich Hund, aeroshell program manager at Lockheed’s space systems unit.

But this was the largest capsule to use a new material called PICA (shorthand for phenolic impregnated carbon ablator), which has only previously been used in missions involving craft with smaller shells. And it was the first heat shield to carry a robust instrumentation package, which Hund said Lockheed hopes will provide new information about Mars and the environment.

“In the past, we designed very conservatively ... because it is a bit of an unknown environment,” he said. The new data should “give us better design parameters for future missions.”

Siemens, which has its corporate headquarters in the District, provided software to help engineers design the craft. In this case, the software, used in the automotive and consumer product industries, simulated the environment the rover would encounter on its way to Mars and helped the rover prepare for its difficult landing.

Looking forward

The space agency has a long record of pioneering innovative technology, often with commercial spin-offs. Memory foam, for instance, was developed under a NASA contract, and products such as Tang, Teflon and Velcro — while not invented by NASA — were popularized by the space program.

And the Curiosity does feature first-time innovations. According to NASA, the rover used a new “sky crane” technique to lower the rover to the surface of Mars and broke new ground with its radio and antenna.

Much of the tried-and-tested technology for tomorrow’s missions is being developed today. BAE is moving forward with creating the next-generation version of its RAD750, which Scuderi said is expected to provide 10 times the processing power.

“We typically count on about 10-to-15 years for a life cycle ... once the products move to space,” Scuderi said. The next-generation version is expected to be in satellites in about three years.

Lockheed Martin announced last week that it will build a new spacecraft set to go to Mars in 2016, which is to research how the planet evolved.

Still, with the end of NASA’s renowned shuttle program, Frank L. Culbertson, a former astronaut who now is an executive at Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, is concerned that public interest — and a push for funding — is on the wane.

“Curiosity, I think, got everybody’s attention again,” he said. “It demonstrates that the space community can really perform.”

Even if research on Mars or at the space station doesn’t immediately yield new products or breakthroughs, Culbertson said the country’s presence there is critical to helping it reach the next level of innovation.

If the United States gives up its presence in space, “we lose our opportunity to go farther,” he said.

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