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How Manufacturers Put the Curiosity Rover on Mars

Oct 02, 2012

The Mars rover is one of the most sophisticated mechanical devices ever developed. Not only is it designed to land safely on another planet, it's also equipped with an array of advanced tools. But the rover couldn't have gotten to Mars without the ingenuity and hard work of numerous U.S. manufacturers.

On August 22nd, the Mars Rover Curiosity left Bradbury Landing on Mars to take a tour of the Red Planet and send back pictures. According to Sky & Telescope, Curiosity was well on its way to its first palindromic objective, traveling 1,500 feet to "a confluence of three geologic terrains known as Glenelg."

Curiosity is "the most sophisticated rover ever sent to Mars," Doug McCuistion, NASA director of the Mars Exploration Program, told Plant Engineering. McCuistion predicted that Curiosity's mission "will further enhance our understanding of the Red Planet while paving the way for future human exploration."

Needless to say, there were plenty of technological challenges involved in landing the golf-cart sized Curiosity on Mars in such a way that it could send back useful data. As McCuistion explained, these obstacles included "launch, space travel, atmospheric re-entry, and landing a 2000-lb operational vehicle on the surface of Mars." Not your everyday hurdles, but ones that were overcome through the combined efforts of dozens of team members.

According to, designing and building such a rover is not as difficult now as it would have been just a little while ago. Designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Curiosity's builders used Siemens' product lifecycle management software to keep the massive project on track.

The PLM helped with big-picture goals, such as building and testing prototypes by using a suite of simulators and version tracking to "avoid a lot of physical prototyping - saving both time and money, and speeding up the development process." Engineers could check in and work on their part instead of being isolated from the project because it was in another lab.

The software was also employed to simulate the capsule slowing from 13,000 miles per hour to zero in temperatures exceeding 1,500 degrees centigrade, while deploying "the largest and strongest supersonic parachute ever built," which was made by Pioneer Aerospace. After that, radar-guided rockets would keep the capsule hovering 20 meters above the surface while a sky-crane put Curiosity down gently.

On August 6th, it all paid off: The "one-ton, $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity Rover" was safely placed on Mars, qualifying as NASA's "most ambitious achievement since the lunar landing," IndustryWeek reports.

The plutonium-powered rover featured a lightweight composite heat shield, inter-stage adapter and boat tail sections of the rocket made by ATK, a Minneapolis-based aerospace, defense and commercial products company. Longtime NASA contractor Dunmore, from the Philadelphia area, provided components "to protect Curiosity's electrical wiring from the wild temperature swings and radiation in space and to insulate wires from interfering with other electrical components on the rover," according to

There were a lot of engineers and technicians sitting with their fingers crossed during the "Seven Minutes of Terror," the time between when the rover's communications were activated and the first signal reached Earth.

If anything didn't perform as expected, be it Dunmore's wiring, Siemens' simulations or ATK's heat shield, not to mention the many components and processes from other companies, including Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, Aerojet and General Dynamics (as well as a bicycle manufacturer in Chattanooga), the entire mission could have failed.

The seven minutes of trepidation were followed by euphoria at 10:32 P.M. on Sunday, August 6th, when mission control announced: "We are wheels down on Mars."

Now, the rover has moved onto the next stage of its mission: collecting data by taking pictures and shooting lasers on the surface of Mars - the stuff of science-fiction daydreams.

The discoveries the rover team has made so far are remarkable: NASA officials say Curiosity has "found evidence of a stream... once ran vigorously across the area on Mars," sending back what NASA officials describe as "images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels."

According to, Curiosity fires a laser gun to look inside Martian rocks to measure their composition. The rover's chemical and camera - ChemCam - instrument "fires laser pulses that last just five one-billionths of a second but deliver more than a million watts of power, enough to turn solid rock into an ionized plasma." Spectrometers are then deployed to analyze the results.

The ChemCam is but one of 10 such measuring and analyzing instruments on Curiosity, along with an arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. But let's face it, the laser gun is the coolest piece of equipment.