Workers at a small aerospace company in Pasadena, California, played a crucial role in the Mars exploration rover missions. The company designed and manufactured the robotic arm on each of two rovers now on the Red Planet.
Alliance Spacesystems Inc. (ASI) is nestled in a business park in the suburbs of Pasadena, near a bakery, a gym and hair salon. ASI makes parts for spacecraft.
The company, with just 25 employees, designed and manufactured an important component on the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Director of Engineering Brett Lindenfeld says the part is a highly maneuverable robotic arm. Just 90 centimeters long and weighing four kilograms, it holds four scientific instruments. One is an abrasion tool to scrape the weathered surface of Martian rocks. Two are spectrometers to analyze the chemicals in the rocks and soil, and the other is a microscope that takes magnified pictures.
Mr. Lindenfeld says design and fabrication were incredible challenges. At one point, ASI engineers spent two weeks trying to reduce the weight of components by just five grams. They worked with Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the missions, to meet exacting specifications.
"As exacting as you could possibly imagine. There was no margin for error," Mr. Lindenfeld said. "And if you talk to people at JPL who worked on the rover or the lander, or any other element of the whole system, there was just no room. Everything was designed to the edge of the envelope."
The rovers are working more than 160 million kilometers from earth in a dusty, cold environment, and the robotic arm's five movable joints must all work as designed for a successful mission.
In ASI's machine shop, Bill Reed writes computer code to operate a device that carves precision components from rugged, lightweight materials like titanium and composites. He starts with plans from company engineers.
"It's even a step beyond engineering and design because they draw up something on paper, but we actually create something with our hands that end up on another planet," he said.
ASI president and CEO Rene Fradet is a former engineer with Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is located nearby, and he founded this company with two other JPL workers. In the six years since its creation, he says ASI has worked closely with JPL scientists to help them accomplish their mission.
"Typically you have a principal investigator and they have a lot of knowledge about the sensor or the technology they're trying to do," he said. "But then they need to package it in a box that can survive launch loads, that can take the temperature extremes, that can be light. And that's typically not their area of expertise."
There was some nervousness at ASI when the Mars landers touched down and the rovers started to function. Both rovers have sent back stunning photographs, but computer problems with Spirit are endangering its mission. The two probes are searching for evidence that liquid water once existed on the Martian surface.
Mr. Fradet points out that teamwork is the key to space missions, just as teamwork is the key to success in baseball.
"It's a little bit like playing sports," he said. "You could be in the ninth inning and the bases are loaded and you come up to bat. You can hit over the fence or you can strike out. You're part of a team and everybody has to make sure that it works fine. Our arm is crucial to the mission, but the batteries are crucial to the mission, the solar arrays are crucial to the mission." And so, he says, are all the other systems and components.
ASI has branched out into industries other than aerospace. The company designed a stable high tech camera platform for Hollywood moviemakers. But most of its products are destined for other worlds, or as the company's website says, for orbital and interplanetary missions.