As NASA scientists celebrated the safe landing of the latest Mars mission last Sunday, a US technology firm was revelling in having played a vital role in equipping the Curiosity rover for its cosmic task.
Yardney Technical Products, a Connecticut-based technology corporation that focuses on battery development, provided NASA with the lithium-ion batteries that could keep Curiosity moving over the red planets surface for the next decade or more.
Yardneys president, Vincent Yevoli Jr, spoke to IM about the companys batteries and the importance of lithium-ion technology in powering space exploration.
|Out of this world: li-ion batteries and |
graphite tiles help Nasa take Curiosity
What made your battery suitable for a Mars mission?
The battery had to be able to withstand extremes of temperature anything from -40 to +80 degrees centigrade as well as the shock and vibrations caused by the craft landing on Mars.
It also had to comply with certain size constraints; a lot of energy capacity had to be fitted into a small package. So the battery had a much higher energy density than you would find in your average commercial li-ion battery.
What was the composition of the battery?
It is primarily made from a lithiated-cobalt material. It also includes a nuclear isotope that generates 95W of power continuously, but thats only about enough to illuminate a light bulb. This will be used to recharge the battery.
Its the battery itself that will power the rover, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper.
Theres also some graphite in there too.
How did you come to develop the technology?
Weve been working with NASA for some time now, and this is the fourth successful mission for which we have provided the battery technology.
Can these kinds of batteries be used for anything closer to home?
We have lots of battery designs similar to those used for the NASA missions, and these are mostly used in military and defence applications.
The lithium-ion battery in this case was specially designed for NASA, but essentially it uses the same technology as our other batteries.
We could make an electric vehicle battery using this technology, but it would be too expensive to be commercial.
Are you involved in the electric vehicle market?
We went after that business a few years ago but didnt get selected for the funding. In hindsight, this was fortunate for us, as we see that market as being pretty saturated.
In our view, the EV market is not maturing fast enough to sustain all the li-ion battery producers out there.
So youll be sticking with space exploration?
Yes. Were a small company, but weve got our niche and were doing just fine with that!
Graphite helped safe landing
Meanwhile, another US technology company, based in Denver, Pennsylvania, had its own reasons for congratulating itself.
Weaver Industries Inc., a firm that specialises in machining graphite materials for foundries such as graphite electrodes, produced dozens of tiles for the heat shield that protected Curiosity as it descended through Mars atmosphere.
Speaking proudly about the companys achievement, Weavers executive vice president, Leon Good, said: [NASA] were originally going to make another heat shield with another type of material and it failed."
He added that the firm was sworn to secrecy over the details of the project under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations which are designed to safeguard US security.
I cant go home and tell my kids, my grandkids what Im working on. I can just say, well were working on something really cool, and thats about it, Good said.
Weaver Industries keeps a low profile, but has a long history of working on space-related projects. In 1961, the graphite company machined the mould for the heat shield for the Mercury shot which put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space.