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FUTEK is going on a Mission to Mars
(aboard NASA’s Mars Exploration Program)
Release Date: 1/8/2008

FUTEK cryogenic force sensors will play a key role in the Mars Science Laboratory that is scheduled to travel to Mars in late 2009. This mission is the next step of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Mars Science Laboratory is a rover that will assess a variety of scientific objectives, including whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. The rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. Dozens of samples of Mars soil and rocks will be analyzed by the rover to detect chemical building blocks of life as well as what the Martian environment was like in the past.

NASA/JPL chose FUTEK because of its unique cryogenic capabilities and experience in providing sensors for previous successful missions. This sensor must survive, and remain operational, through the Martian day/night cycle from a high of +23?F down to -124?F. The sensor must also be immune to the shock and vibration expected on the mission. The qualification unit has survived and remained operational through applied random vibration and shock up to 2,200 g's. The FUTEK sensor plays a critical role in this primary mission objective by monitoring the drilling force on the subsurface sampling drill. The rock and soil samples will be carried into the rover to be analyzed by the various chemical and spectral instruments on board the mobile science laboratory.

NASA has chosen the Atlas V launch vehicle because of its heavy lifting capability and they will employ a unique powered landing system for the Mars rover. Previous missions to the Martian surface have employed a parachute and airbag system for a soft landing. However, this is risky and less precise than a powered, controlled descent. A similar mission by the European Space Agency to land a science rover called Beagle 2 (after and Charles Darwin’s ship) in 2003 was lost during landing using a parachute and airbag system. The mission is scheduled to launch around October 2009, arriving at the red planet around July 2010.

The entry, descent and landing system for this mission is entirely new. The Mars Science Laboratory will be slowed by a large parachute. As the spacecraft loses speed, rockets will fire, controlling the spacecraft's descent until the rover separates from its vehicle and is lowered to a soft “wheels down” landing" on the surface of Mars, ready to begin its mission.

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