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Aug 09, 2012 | 10:37 PM

Take me to your leader

Tags  NASA, Curiosity rover, Mars, GrafTech International, Mars Science Laboratory, phenolic impregnated carbon ablator, PICA, Robin Beck Ames Research Center

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It’s going to take time and tons of science to determine if there is--or ever was--life on Mars but it only took hours after NASA’s unmanned mobile laboratory, aptly named “Curiosity”, landed on the surface of the Red Planet for two well-known names in metals circles to align themselves with the 98-week mission.

First out of the gate was GrafTech International, a Parma, Ohio-based global graphite materials science company which claims to have developed and manufactured the thermal solutions that were used in Curiosity’s heat shield. The shield, measuring almost 15 feet in diameter (14.8 feet to be exact) and billed as the largest ever built for a planetary mission, was designed to protect the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) from the intense heat and friction generated during its’ descent through the Martian atmosphere. Mission accomplished and to commemorate the occasion, the shield will remain on the surface of Mars forever.

NASA describes the heat shield as “covered with tiles of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) material and estimated on its web site that the material could be called on to withstand temperatures up to 3,800 deg. F. due to the mass and size of the rover and its unique trajectory profile,

“The MSL PICA heat shield was designed to withstand more than five times the highest heating encountered anywhere on the space shuttle and we expect that it will perform beautifully,” Robin Beck the MSL TPS (Thermal Protection System)cognizant engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Cal., said in a statement issued prior to Curiosity’s touch-down on Mars.
NASA, which describes the heat shield material as slightly more dense than balsa wood, credits the Ames Research Center with inventing the PICA material and Fiber Materials Inc., Biddeford, Maine with developing the tiles.

No stranger to the Red Planet, The Timken Co. was equally quick to board the “Curiosity” bandwagon. On a cosmic roll, Timken® bearings outfit and support critical functions onboard the rover, as they did on two previous NASA planetary unmanned missions to Mars.

“Instruments on board Curiosity include a spectrum analyzer that requires advanced motion control and a miniature pump,” Timken said in a statement. “Both will be involved in the process of collecting and analyzing specimens.”

The Canton, Ohio-based company noted that the center hub of the rover’s carousel system rotates on Timken bearings, positioning sample cups. Curiosity is expected to analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and cored from rocks as it sniffs around and explores with greater range than previous Mars rovers.

Two miniature Timken bearings, sporting an outer diameter of a diminutive 0.2500 inches, also outfit a pint-sized vacuum pump supporting the rover’s analytical equipment.

Timken’s Keene, N.H, plant, which works extensively with NASA, manufactured the miniature precision bearings.