With three missions heading off to Mars in the next month, FINN’s editor-in-chief Alan Peaford asks about the fascination with the Red Planet and why its somewhere we could imagine living.

This July will see three missions heading to Mars – a Chinese mission, one by NASA and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope project.

Next month provides a window of opportunity to get to Mars. And any mission failing to launch on time will have to sit tight and wait patiently for the next chance in another couple of years.

Switzerland’s Maxon has more motors working on Mars than any other company. The company has produced a webinar on their role in the Mars Rover project which you can view here . FINN spoke to the webinar’s presenter, the head of the Space Lab for Maxon, Robin Phillips.

Mars is “somewhere we could imagine living”

Phillips explained the draw of the planet: “I think humans in general have always had a fascination with Mars ever since the ancient astronomers several thousand years ago realised that those five bright spots of light that we can see in the sky ourselves move relative to other stars, but they’re special in some way. Since we’ve had telescopes and spacecraft able to go there, we’ve realised that Mars is really the only one where we have a possibility to physically go ourselves. It’s not too hot, not too cold, no poisonous gas. It’s somewhere we can imagine living ourselves.”

Maxon specialises in building electric motors, gearboxes and feedback devices within industrial and medical applications. The company has been involve in space projects for 30 years out of its 60 year history and a niche space activity for the last decade.

Motors withstand launch process, journey and harsh Martian climate

Mars Rovers have been sending back messages for around a decade. The motors have to be robust enough to withstand both the harsh conditions of Mars itself as well as the launch process and the six months it takes within a vacuum to reach the planet. Materials must also be able to expand and contract at different rates to adapt to the Martian climate which cycles every day between minus 130 degrees C at nights, and just above freezing during the day.

While the technology used for the Mars Rover is the same which Maxon uses on Earth, it has to undergo a rigorous testing process, as Phillips explains.

“If you don’t have that perfectly matched, your motor will fall apart after a few hundred cycles. That’s the thing that makes really the biggest engineering difficulty for us. We can show that our designs work for that by having the testing facilities here on Earth which we have in the Maxon facility here in Switzerland.”

“We can take our designs and put them in a climate chamber or environmental chamber and cycle them hundreds of times between the minus 130 degrees and plus 10 degrees. Usually it fails the first time and then we go back and tweak the design, figure out what we’ve done wrong and we test it again. And we keep doing this cycle until we have it right.”

Good basic design needed for critical application

Having a good basic design which could be adapted to withstanding extreme conditions holds the key to a successful mission: “We very much hope we’ve done it well for the upcoming Mars 2020 launch in July because we have a critical application on there, where our motors will be gripping every sample that the Rover collects to analyse with the goal of bringing them back to earth and the laser mission.”

“And if this arm that our motors are mounted on doesn’t move or the gripper on the end, which is our motor doesn’t work because the whole mission is a failure. So we have absolutely critical applications on these on these multibillion dollar robots.”

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