Colorado aerospace companies contribute technology, expertise to NASA’s Mars 2020 mission
Colorado companies have a big stake in NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, set for launch early Thursday, in the ongoing quest to learn more about the planet and try out new technology. The mission includes a test flight of a small robotic helicopter in the first-ever attempt at controlled flight on another planet.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems designed and built the aeroshell, a two-part structure that will encapsulate the rover, named Perseverance, during its seven-month journey to Mars. A heat shield that’s part of the aeroshell is built to withstand the extreme temperatures — up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit — generated by the descent through the planet’s atmosphere.
Employees at Lockheed’s Jefferson County facility also helped design and then built the system that attaches the 4-pound helicopter to the belly of the rover and will release the craft when all’s clear for its first flight.
“This is a very cool thing,” Neil Tice, Lockheed’s manager for the mission, said about the helicopter. “It’s the first time that there’s been any kind of helicopter or plane that’s flown on another planet or another planetary body.”
Employees at Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ Denver-area facility work on the aeroshell, the covering and heat shield that will encapsulate the rover Perseverance, scheduled to launch Thursday in NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. Provided by Lockheed MartinIn Centennial, employees of United Launch Alliance charted the flight path of the spacecraft, which will be launched by ULA’s Altas V 541 rocket. Every U.S.-led mission to Mars has been launched by ULA rockets or its heritage vehicles, said Jesse Gonzales, a flight controls engineer.
Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co. formed ULA in 2005 to combine the engineering, production and operations associated with launches of their rockets for U.S. government missions.
And the Sierra Nevada Corp., whose Space Systems is based in Louisville, provided eight components being used on the rover, including parts that will enable its safe and stable descent onto the Martian surface, the company said in a news release.
Employees at ULA’s headquarters in Centennial designed and developed the software for the launch and are providing support for the company’s production and launch crews.
“We only have a specific amount of time that we’re able to launch and actually make it to Mars,” Gonzales said. “Mars and Earth do have to be in the correct kind of position to one another, which is really what drives a lot of our schedule considerations.”
The right alignment means less risk, lower costs and less power required to make the 300 million-mile trip to the Red Planet, according to NASA.
“We do have launch opportunities until Aug. 15,” Gonzales said.
And the forecast for the launch, set for 5:50 a.m. MT Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is for an “80% probability of favorable weather,” Gonzales said.
While Gonzales will monitor the takeoff from Centennial, where he’ll provide running comments on the highlights for the public and ULA employees, Tice will be at the launch site. Tice has worked on almost every Mars mission that Lockheed has been part of.
The rover and the helicopter, named Ingenuity, are expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18. Ingenuity, designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will hang tight for a couple months so the rover can be fully checked out to ensure it’s ready to go, Tice said.
The system built by Lockheed Martin will start the process by dropping a debris shield and then firing bolts holding the helicopter to the belly of the rover. Two of its four legs will drop and when the craft is correctly oriented, the other two will drop.
“Then the rover is able to drive away and the helicopter can do its thing and start flying around,” Tice said.
Ingenuity is lightweight and small, about 8 inches by 10 inches, with big blades, roughly 4 feet long. The helicopter had to be designed to get enough lift to fly in the Martian atmosphere of virtually zero, Tice said. The atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s at sea level.
Perseverance will be making NASA’s riskiest landing on Mars yet because of boulders and cliffs in the site called Jezero Crater, The Associated Press reports. Its tasks will include looking for signs of past microbial life. The rover is equipped with a drill to collect core samples of rocks and soil.
United Launch Alliance is providing live updates of the launch.
By: Judith Kohler
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