Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Stainless Steel helping to explore the surface of Mars

The robust drill on the robot arm of the Mars Rover Curiosity helps scoop rock dust on Mars – a milestone for researchers. A friction spring made of Stainless Steel dampens the forces generated during the drilling process and prevents any resonance phenomena.

Space is calling. Infinite vastness – and almost infinite opportunities to test innovative technology in border areas. During each space mission, neighbouring planets, moons and even destinations outside of our solar system are being explored – and, at the same time, components and systems are tested under extremely severe conditions. These components and systems are often specifically developed for this purpose.

Percussion drill in vacuum

Durability was also a must for the tools on board the Curiosity which weighs almost one ton: two cameras, spectrometer, a powerful laser, a telescope and a drill. On earth, they had drilled more than 1200 holes into the most diverse kinds of rock by using eight different percussion drills, because on Mars, it simply had to work perfectly. For the first time, a research robot was to drill into stone in a place other than the earth. The hardness and composition of the individual rock samples were not known in detail, though some Mars meteorites had given some initial findings. Like with all terrestrial planets, basalts and quartz-rich intrusive rocks as well as olivine were predominant. These have a relatively high hardness, i.e. a Mohs hardness of six to eight. For comparison: a diamond has a Mohs hardness of 10. The drill had to be capable of withstanding this and able to powder the Mars rocks in spite of these harsh conditions.

The friction spring as a buffer

The California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which builds spacecrafts for NASA, finally opted for a solution where a special friction spring effectively ensured robustness. It dampens the impacts of the drill and absorbs the occurring kinetic energy that can amount up to six Joule.

Friction spring: Durable, robust, maintenance-free 

Friction springs, which damp high forces in spite of their relatively small dimensions, are used for applications in mechanical engineering, aviation as well as for earthquake protection in buildings and power supply facilities. They consist of inner and outer rings that interact via conical contact surfaces and use a lubricant tailored to the respective application. As a standard, the friction springs absorb 66 per cent of the induced energy. The component is made from Stainless Steel and has been specifically developed to fulfill the requirements of the Mars mission. Instead of using the conventional lubricant, the component for the Mars robot has been designed with a coating.

Curiosity accomplished its primary mission in 2014, but is still en route. Mid of January 2016, Curiosity transmitted a selfie to earth which shows it digging in the so-called Namib Dune.

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