Small rocket engines designed and built at Aerojet in Redmond will steer and deliver NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, after its launch from Cape Canaveral.
Redmond rocket scientist Jon Schierberl’s work has landed on Mars six times before.
Yet he’s still excited enough that he flew to Florida with his extended family very early Thanksgiving morning to witness the planned Saturday launch of a new robotic rover headed for Mars.
Small rocket engines designed, built and tested by his team at Aerojet in Redmond will steer the delivery spacecraft on its journey and guide the rover to its touchdown on the planet’s surface.
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“I’ve built rockets that have gone to every planet in the solar system, and that includes Pluto,” said Schierberl, the company’s program manager for small rocket engines.
With the help of an array of 36 of Schierberl’s rocket engines, the new robotic rover — NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, dubbed Curiosity — should reach Mars in about 8 ½ months.
Then, running on a small nuclear-powered battery pack, it will trundle for one Martian year (almost two years to us Earthlings) around a 100-mile-wide crater that has a three-mile-high mountain in its center.
Curiosity is equipped with camera eyes and six dune-buggy wheels. Think WALL-E, the size of a small car.
As it roams the crater, it will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks and scooped from the ground, searching for microbial life and sending data back to Earth.
Curiosity and the vehicle that will deliver it to the surface of Mars are already sealed within a protective capsule atop an Atlas V rocket that is set to take off from Cape Canaveral on Saturday.
Massive Atlas rocket engines — including four boosters built by Aerojet in Sacramento, Calif. — will launch the spacecraft into orbit around the Earth.
From then on, it’s Redmond-built rockets that will power and steer the craft. First, 12 small engines will fire to position it in orbit and point it toward Mars.
Eight more very small engines, each with just a pound of thrust, will guide the craft on the cruise phase of its interplanetary flight.
When the spacecraft reaches Mars, another eight, slightly bigger engines will steer it toward the landing spot. After it enters the Mars atmosphere, a large parachute will open about a mile above the planet and slow the spacecraft before detaching.
Then a final set of eight Aerojet Redmond engines, larger and with variable thrust, will fire to further slow Curiosity’s descent as the delivery vehicle approaches the planet’s surface.
A couple of hundred feet off the ground, cables will lower Curiosity until it touches down.
When it does, the cables will separate and that final set of Redmond engines will fire one last time to boost the delivery vehicle so it can crash some miles away from the landing site. Meanwhile, if everything works as planned, Curiosity will take its first bearings and begin broadcasting back to Earth.
After the months-long journey, said Schierberl, “the descent from cruise to landing takes about six minutes.”
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, said Mars has become an important target for space business as demand for other missions, either government or commercial, is unlikely to grow in the years ahead.
Last year, President Obama called for a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030 decade.
“The space-launch industry is looking to Mars missions as the one big opportunity for the future,” Thompson said.
Aerojet, headquartered in Sacramento, bought the rocket-engine facility in Redmond in 2002. It had begun life as Rocket Research in 1959, founded by some ex-Boeing engineers in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle.
The company moved to Redmond in 1968, and before the rise of Microsoft was the largest employer in the area, said Olwen Morgan, manager of business development at Aerojet. Today the facility employs about 400 people, 60 percent of them engineers, and has a close working relationship with the University of Washington.
“A number of young engineers here weren’t born when I first started working here,” said Schierberl, who joined in 1972 straight from the UW.
Aerojet Redmond designs and builds engines for both military and commercial satellites, as well as spacecraft that will visit nearby planets or travel into deep space.
The chemical-propellant technology used in the rocket engines for the trip to Mars is not new — the company’s original founders developed it in the ’60s — but over the years, engineers have steadily refined and improved it to make it more reliable.
Jeff Faust, a senior analyst with aerospace-consulting firm Futron, said the company is also one of the leaders in newer electric propulsion systems.
One such Aerojet engine system just saved the U.S. Air Force from losing a communications satellite costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
An engine built by another company to push the satellite into position failed, stranding it in a useless orbit. But the satellite also had Redmond-built electric engines intended only for steering adjustments.
After more than a year of maneuvering using those engines — “one little puff at a time” — the satellite reached its assigned position just a few months ago, to the great relief of the military, Faust said. Aerojet had a party to celebrate in Redmond.
For this latest Mars mission, Schierberl planned like an engineer for his family to share in what he does: He’d arranged for a restaurant to deliver a Thanksgiving dinner for nine to a house he rented a few miles from the launch site.
And in case of launch delays, he’s planning to stay for eight days.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org