Small Businesses That Made the Mars Mission Possible
BY Issie Lapowsky
Talk about an untapped market. These businesses are making their mark 154 million miles from Earth.
When NASA's Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars Monday, it made history as the largest and most advanced rover to ever land on the Red Planet. For the next 23 months, the Curiosity will study the Martian surface, test for the existence of certain gases and chemicals, and conduct tests to determine whether there is, ever has been, or ever could be, life on Mars. To accomplish all this, the rover will employ technology, not just from NASA's Mars Science Laboratory team, but also from small businesses across the country.
According to CNNMoney, the Curiosity is currently supporting about 300 non-NASA related jobs. While much of NASA's $2.5 billion bankroll for the mission went to giants like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, here's a look at a few of the small businesses that are also making history (and money):
Those who watched the landing take place on video have geologist Michael Malin, founder of Malin Space Science Systems, to thank. Founded in 1990, the company designs and builds camera systems for spacecraft. Malin is responsible for three pieces of imaging technology on the Curiosity. The first, the Mastcam (pictured below), is perhaps, the most crucial. Made up of two cameras, the Mastcam acts as the rover's eyes and can capture still images as well as video. Malin also supplied the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, and the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI. The MAHLI, located on the rover's robotic arm, will collect close-up images of rocks and soil. The MARDI was the camera used during the landing, itself, which recorded the first ever video of a spacecraft landing on Mars.
Ocean Optics founder Mike Morris is widely regarded as the inventor of the miniature spectrometer, an instrument for measuring light. Founded in 1989, the company provided the Curiosity with three spectrometers, which are now embedded in the rover's chemistry and camera suite, or ChemCam. The ChemCam also includes an infrared laser and telescope. To identify chemicals in far away rocks, the ChemCam's laser blasts the rock, turning a pinhead-sized spot into glowing plasma. That spot is then magnified by the telescope. The flash created by the laser shoots through the telescope back to Ocean Optics's spectrometers (shown in the rendering below). Depending on the wavelength of that light, the spectrometer can determine the elements such as oxygen, hydrogen, aluminum, and nitrogen, that exist in the rocks and soil.
To identify the minerals in rock and soil samples, the Curiosity will lean heavily on X-ray diffraction technology supplied by inXitu, a Mountain View, California-based company. X-ray diffraction is the most reliable way to identify minerals, but this is the first time it will be used on a mission to Mars. The technology was first developed by inXitu CTO Dr. Phillippe Sarazen. When samples are collected, inXitu's technology focuses an X-ray beam at it, scattering the X-rays in different directions. Because minerals are crystalline, each mineral has a trademark diffraction pattern, allowing scientists to identify what mineral they're looking at. Below is a mineral-analysis kt made by inXitu.
Founded by 1983 by Stephen Gorevan and Chris Chapman, the Manhattan-based Honeybee Robotics supplied two crucial pieces of technology to the Curiosity: its sample-manipulation system and its dust-removal tool. The sample-manipulation system, or SMS, consists of 74 sample cups (like those seen below). When the cups get filled with surface and atmospheric samples from Mars, the SMS moves the samples to various testing stations. That's where the Curiosity's sample analysis tools test for signs of life on Mars, including the presence of carbon-based compounds. The dust removal tool, which is located on the rover's robotic arm, uses metal bristle brushes to clean dust off the surface of samples. This is not Honeybee's first trip to Mars. The company has supplied hardware for two rovers in the past, including the 2003 MER mission and the 2007 Phoenix mission.
The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based bicycle company, owned by American Bicycle Group, got involved with the Mars mission by chance. According to CNNMoney, a NASA engineer working on the rover's titanium fabrication was also a cyclist familiar with Litespeed's highly durable titanium bikes. He suggested NASA work with the company on the rover's titanium suspension arms. The arms (shown extended in this NASA rendering below), according to NASA, have "the strength and precision to maneuver the 73-pound turret at the end of the arm accurately enough to deliver an asprin tablet into a thimble."