Some Western New York ingenuity helped NASA land its latest rover on the surface of Mars with ease, including a woman from Northern Chautauqua County. Engineers at Moog Inc., designed and built components within the Curiosity rover's descent vehicle to control a precise landing on the fourth planet from the sun.
The company's space and defense division on Jamison Road, Elma spent five years constructing propulsion valves for the space module that lowered the Mars Science Laboratory - known as Curiosity - onto the red planet. The process for getting the rover onto Mars was a new tactic, and NASA called the landing sequence the "seven minutes of terror."
"There were so many things that could go wrong," Kristen Luce Zulawski, an engineer at Moog originally from the Dunkirk/Fredonia area, said. "It either worked or it didn't."
This color image from NASA’s Curiosity rover shows part of the wall of Gale Crater, the location on Mars where the rover landed on Aug. 6 (Eastern time). This is part of a larger, high-resolution color mosaic made from images obtained by Curiosity’s Mast Camera.
Zulawski, 30, has been with Moog for 10 years as a design engineer. She was the head product engineer on a team of engineers for the valve project, something she already considers the biggest and most exciting project on which she has ever worked or will ever work again.
"For the technological innovation alone, it means so much for the future," Zulawski said.
Zulawski said that the project, which lasted from 2003 to 2008, was meant to assist with a "pinpoint soft landing," a new approach for placing a rover on Mars.
After traveling 352 million miles for more than eight months, the rover entered the Martian atmosphere and deployed a parachute to slow its descent. It then disconnected from the parachute and powered up eight engines to continue dropping. About 25 feet above the ground, the module hovered, and tethers lowered Curiosity. Then the module blasted off, leaving the laboratory in working order.
The last two rover descents were accomplished through parachutes and surrounding the machine in a large airbag to withstand freefall for several seconds.
Because of the time delay between Mars and Earth, all this was pre-programmed and had to work perfectly. The valves were essential because they controlled the propellant - hydrazine - into the engines, Zulawski said.
"Any slight margin of error could cause it to tilt off course," she said, and that could ruin the entire mission.
The valves on the descent module were very specific. Moog provided other valves to assist Curiosity's journey through space, but the landing valves were unique. They are called "cavitating venturi valves" and the process was new for Moog, Zulawski said. Because it was a new product, the valves had to go through rigorous tests "over and above the mission guarantee." At one point that meant re-designing part of the valve to fix a leaking issue and then more testing.
While 40 to 50 people at Moog gave some assistance at some point during the five years, she said there were about four to five engineers regularly on the project.
She has followed the mission since the launch, noting she was in a "network of space buffs" following the progress. When it launched in November, she planned to get up early and follow the landing through the online NASA broadcast channel.
On Aug. 6, about 1:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the rover touched down without a problem. Zulawski was up around 3 a.m. with her four-month-old newborn, Sidney, to watch a recording from Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and the first images sent back from Curiosity. One image showed the rover's silhouette against the Martian ground, and Zulawski thought about how she and her team were part of a complex process to get it safely on the foreign planet.
"I'm one of a few who have touched something that is on Mars," Zulawski said, adding that she thinks about it all the time. She continued to watch the broadcast and "gave a little 'cheers' to my infant with my coffee and her bottle."
The following article was printed with permission from the East Aurora Advertiser.