Perseverance rover heading to Mars

Thursday, 09 July, 2020 | Supplied by: maxon motor Australia Pty Ltd


On 30 July 2020, an Atlas V rocket is scheduled to launch NASA’s new Perseverance rover on its way to Mars, where it will be searching for signs of previous life on the planet. Its most important job is to take multiple soil samples, seal them in containers and deposit them on the surface of Mars so that a future mission can return them to Earth.

maxon motor’s precision brushed and brushless motors will be onboard for various mission-critical tasks, with several such motors employed to handle the samples inside the rover. For example, the company’s DC motors are installed in the robotic arm, which moves the samples from station to station. DC motors will also be used for sealing and depositing the sample containers.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is carrying out the mission, and asked maxon to produce 10 DC motor drive systems for the rover. As with almost all previous Mars missions, these DC motors are modified for the highly specialised purpose and based on standard products from maxon’s catalogue. For the first time NASA is using brushless DC motors, including nine EC 32 flat motors and one EC 20 flat motor in combination with a GP 22 UP planetary gearbox.

Working closely with JPL specialists, maxon engineers developed the drives over several years and tested them thoroughly to achieve high standards of quality. This is because space missions place high demands on DC motor systems — including vibrations during the rocket launch, vacuum during the journey, impacts on landing and the harsh conditions on the surface of Mars, where temperatures fluctuate between -125 and +20°C and dust penetrates everywhere.

“We’ve learned a lot from this exciting project,” said Robin Phillips, Head of maxon’s Space Lab. “We now have very broad expertise in space applications and have established quality assurance processes that meet the expectations of the industry. Customers from other industries such as the medical sector, where requirements are often similar, can also benefit from this know-how.”

The Perseverance rover is expected to land on Mars on 18 February 2021 — but it won’t be alone. A solar-powered drone helicopter called Ingenuity will be attached to the underside of the rover. Weighing 1.8 kg, it will perform several short flights — the first ever on the Red Planet — and take aerial images. The main aim of this experiment is to test the concept for further drones of this kind.

maxon has six brushed DCX motors with a diameter of 10 mm controlling the tilt of the helicopter’s rotor blades and the direction of flight. The DC motors are very light, dynamic and energy efficient. These properties are crucial, because flying on Mars is not easy. The atmosphere is extremely thin, roughly comparable to the conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30 km.

The drone helicopter has flown in a simulated test environment in the JPL laboratory, but whether it will lift off on Mars remains to be seen. First, other obstacles, such as the rocket launch, must be successful.

“We hope that everything goes well and that we’ll soon see our drives in action on Mars,” said maxon CEO Eugen Elmiger. “We’re all keeping our fingers crossed.”

Top image caption: The Perseverance rover obtaining a sample on Mars (artist’s rendition). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech © maxon Group.

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