As Curiosity touched down on Mars on Monday, August 6, many people celebrated the event as another advancement in human achievement. The car-sized rover made a revolutionary descent with parachutes, retrorockets, and a “skycrane,” but the greatest part of this story is the one untold. Small businesses helped to make Curiosity a success; the technologies that this rover will be using to make new discoveries of Martian life are from small businesses across the US.
NASA cannot do large projects like Curiosity without great assistance. In fact, as much as $2.5 billion was spent on the mission, and, according to CNNMoney, the project supports about 300 jobs unrelated to NASA. Much of that money went to the big businesses like General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, but some small businesses also got in on the action.
Honeybee Robotics was founded by Chris Chapman and Stephen Gorevan in 1983. The company is based in New York City and has supplied two integral parts to the Curiosity project. The first is the dust removal tool, which utilizes brushes, whose bristles are made of metal, to clean dust off the surface of samples taken by the rover. The dust removal tool is placed on Curiosity’s robotic arm and used with the company’s sample-manipulation system. The sample-manipulation system is made up of 74 sample cups which are filled with atmospheric and surface samples that the rover picks up from the Martian planet. The sample-manipulation system will move the collected samples to numerous testing stations where they will be tested for the existence of carbon-based compounds and other signs of life that may be on Mars.
Another small company assisting in the Curiosity project is inXitu. This California-based company has provided the X-ray diffraction technology that the rover will use to identify minerals from samples taken of rock and soil. The diffraction technology, innovated by CTO Dr. Phillippe Sarazen, is the most dependable way to detect and categorize minerals from Mars. X-ray diffraction technology works by taking collected samples and then focusing an X-ray beam upon them. This scatters the X-rays in multiple directions because each mineral is crystalline and has unique diffraction patterns. Curiosity will broadcast these results which will allow scientists to categorize each mineral collected through samples.
Litespeed Bicycles is a bicycle company based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Owned by American Bicycle Groups, this small company was involved with the Curiosity mission by chance. NASA needed help in building Curiosity’s titanium suspension arms. An engineer at NASA, who was working on the fabrication of the arms, was also a cyclist who knew of Litespeed’s reliable and resilient titanium bikes. He suggested the two work together, and the result was, according to NASA, “[arms that have] the strength and precision to maneuver the 73-pound turret at the end of the arm accurately enough to deliver an aspirin tablet into a thimble.”
Many watched the Curiosity landing due to video technologies provided by Malin Space Science Systems. The company, founded in 1990 by geologist Michael Malin, designed and built the camera systems for the rover project. Curiosity’s imaging technology is made up of three pieces. The first, called Mastcam is made up of two cameras which act as the eyes and capture still images along with video. The other two pieces of imaging technology are MAHLI, or Mars Hand Lens Imager, and MARDI, Mars Descent Imager. The MARDI camera was the technology used to record the spacecraft landing. The Curiosity landing was the first video ever taken of a Martian landing. MAHLI is responsible for taking close-up images of Mars’ rocks and soil and is attached to Curiosity’s robotic arm.
The last small business, Ocean Optics, is by no means the least. Ocean Optics was established in 1989 by Mike Morris, who is known as the inventor of the miniature spectrometer. Curiosity has three spectrometers that will measure light implanted in the rover’s ChemCam. Chemcam is made up of the rover’s camera and chemistry suite, and it includes an infrared laser and telescope. Chemcam will be able to identify chemicals and minerals in rocks that are located far away. The Chemcam laser will turn rock into plasma. Albeit only a small pin-sized spot of the rock will become plasma, but that will be enough for the spectrometer and scientists to determine the elements that exist in the rocks and soil on Mars.
Each of these small businesses contributed to the Curiosity project in ways that were important to making this rover a success. If you would like more information on the Curiosity project please visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/press_kits/MSLLanding.pdf
This is the video of Curiosity’s Descent to Mars: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=149974611
Lapowsky, Issie. “Small Businesses That Made the Mars Mission Possible.” Wire. Inc. Magazine. 8/7/2012. (8/8/12.) http://www.inc.com/issie-lapowsky/small-companies-built-mars-curiosity-technology.html