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SENER increase its presence in Mexico  No.44 /Technology

 

SENER increase its presence in Mexico  No.44 /Technology

Participation in the Curiosity

SENER Technology arrives to Mars

© NASA 2012 The rover Curiosity in Mars

© NASA 2012 The rover Curiosity in Mars

SENER is participating in the Mars Science Laboratory mission as part of a technology collaboration agreement between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Spanish Center for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI). More specifically, the company has supplied the pointing mechanism for the high-gain antenna that enables bi-directional communication between the rover Curiosity and the mission’s tracking stations on Earth. The antenna’s main function is to receive Curiosity’s daily work orders promptly and, thanks to the precision of the mechanism supplied by SENER, this has been done with excellent results during the initial months of the mission to Mars.

The high-gain antenna’s pointing mechanism is SENER’s first device operating on a heavenly body other than Earth, making it a new milestone in the company’s work in the space industry.

THE POINTING MECHANISM PROVES ITS EFICIENCY

After an eight-month journey and a successful landing on the Martian surface on August 6th, the various on-board devices and instruments were activated and fine-tuned via commands relayed from the JPL in Pasadena (California). One of these fine-tuning activities involved determining the vehicle’s exact location, which is crucial for correctly orienting the high-gain antenna toward Earth. This task was successfully completed on August 8th and up to now broadband communication with Earth is functioning normally.

Over the last months, the antenna has daily communicated the rover with the control center on Earth, informing the technical team about the Curiosity’s activities. The antenna is crucial for supervising the use of the on board scientific instruments for the exploration. The rover has started its activity in a Martian area called Glenelg, where it is taking the first geological samplers.

AN ANTENNA WITH FULL AUTONOMY

SENER’s mechanism is the first ever to allow a rover to position itself independently with its own antenna, without the entire vehicle having to turn to point toward Earth, thus providing significant energy savings. The antenna communicates directly with NASA’s deep space stations in Pasadena (USA), Canberra (Australia) and Robledo de Chavela, in Madrid (Spain), with a lag of just 13.8 minutes, so that all of the information arriving from Mars is closer than ever to real-time.

The pointing mechanism has two degrees of freedom and elevation over azimuth, and is integrated on the rover platform, from where it can point the antenna precisely toward Earth. An actuator moves each axis independently to achieve the required velocity and accuracy. SENER has also designed the antenna’s connection and deployment systems, which worked seamlessly after Curiosity’s landing.

MAIN CHALLENGES

The main challenges SENER’s team had to face stemmed from the unique conditions of the Martian atmosphere. First, the broad temperature range the rover (and therefore all of its equipment and instruments) is subjected to will range from -130 °C to 50 °C.

Secondly, there is the phenomenon of suspended fine dust, which worsens during the infamous Martian storms. This made it critical to take special care when designing the mechanism’s seals and in its lubrication. Lastly were the reliability requirements needed throughout the mission, since the rover is designed to function for at least two years, but experience has shown that these missions tend to extend beyond their scheduled dates.

Another challenge faced by SENER’s team in this project was the actual landing of the Curiosity rover, during what NASA called the ‘seven minutes of terror’. The vehicle would experience violent shaking during its descent into Mars’ atmosphere, so in order to ensure the integrity of the pointing mechanism, SENER devised a connection system that only uses a bolt screwed on with a nut. Upon landing on the Martian surface, a pyrotechnic device blew off the holding bolt with great reliability, and the pointing mechanism successfully deployed so that it could commence its operations as planned.

The success of this mission is another step in SENER’s Space history. The company is a global leader in the space industry, with over 208 devices launched in 48 satellites or space vehicles to date: for the space agencies of the US (NASA), Europe (ESA), Japan (JAXA) and Russia (Roscosmos), all without a single recorded failure.

 

Gallery

 
© NASA 2012 SENER has provided the high gain antenna gimbal that communicates the rover in Mars with the Earth© NASA 2012  Curiosity’s HGAG (High Gain Antenna Gimbal)

Copyright SENER 2012