NASA’s latest Mars Rover, Curiosity, successfully blasted off to the red planet November 26 carrying two key components developed by Connecticut companies.

Pioneer Aerospace in South Windsor designed and constructed a parachute system for the rover that will decelerate part of its descent through the Martian atmosphere when it arrives in August.  The parachute will deploy at an extremely high rate of speed (Mach 2.2) when it enters the atmosphere, and according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will deliver 65,000 pounds of drag force. 

NASA says it is the single largest parachute ever used on a mission to another planet. 

Due to the vast distance between Earth and Mars, the landing procedure is completely automated given how long it takes radio signals to travel back and forth between the two planets.  The parachute will be detached shortly before landing and a rocket system will take over to slow Curiosity’s descent to the surface.

This is not the first Mars mission for Pioneer Aerospace.  A number of its parachutes are resting on the surface of Mars following the successful landings of prior missions in 1997, 2004, and 2008.

Unlike recent landers that were powered by batteries and solar panels, Curiosity is powered by a plutonium generator called the “Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator” (MMRTG) designed by Hamilton Sundstrand Rocketdyne.  Hamilton Sundstrand is based out of Windsor Locks but the power system was designed and built at a division in California. 

“With the MMRTG power system, the Curiosity rover will have excellent mobility and scientific capability,” said Bill Otting, the MMRTG’s program manager.

The MMRTG has no moving parts and contains approximately 10 pounds of plutonium.  NASA and government officials put in extra precautions in the case of an accident.  The plutonium system was designed to break into pieces rather than dust should an explosion take place. 

The nuclear power system will give the new rover extended capabilities over its predecessors.  Since it doesn’t need to charge in the sun or shut down at night it can operate continuously throughout its two year mission.  Curiosity is substantially larger than prior rovers sent to Mars.

Curiosity in 60 seconds:

Curiosity will now travel approximately 352 million miles to Mars, a journey that will conclude on August 6, 2012.  When it arrives it will begin searching for signs of microbes and other evidence that life sustaining properties might exist on the planet.  Among its many instruments is a high powered laser that can heat up portions of rocks for chemical analysis from a distance. 

Still operating on the planet years beyond its designed mission life is the rover Opportunity that landed in January 2004.  Opportunity’s battery system was designed by another Connecticut company, Yardney Technical Products, located in Pawcatuck.  The company proudly displays a counter on its website with the length of time the battery has been operating on the surface of the planet. 

Follow the Mars Curiosity mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory site.