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EaglePicher Batteries Play Critical Role in Mars Landing

Some 140 million miles away from Joplin, batteries built by employees of EaglePicher Technologies helped power the safe landing early Monday of NASA’s most advanced scientific rover on the surface of Mars.

Jim Ferraro, an engineering manager at EaglePicher, was among the millions of viewers who stayed up to watch coverage of the historic landing of Curiosity, a roving laboratory.

Asked if it is surreal to see something made by him and others in Joplin land on another plant, Ferraro said: “Yes, yes it is. I wanted to stay up and see it. Watching the reaction of all the people who worked on the program — it was pretty exciting.”

EaglePicher has been providing batteries for the space program for about as long as there has been a space program. Batteries from Joplin have been used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, in the lunar rover that transported astronauts on the moon, on space shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, not to mention hundreds of commercial, military and scientific satellites.

EaglePicher also has been on several earlier missions to Mars.

With a $2.6 billion price tag, the latest mission has been hailed by many, including the President of the United States, as an unprecedented feat of technology. Part of that technology included four thermal batteries built by EaglePicher and designed for the extreme environment of space.

The batteries provided electrical power to the landing system, including the pyrotechnics that ignited the rocket motors — small explosive devices that did the work as the craft was coming down — and provided electrical power to the lander’s radar.

“Very similar batteries to these were used in the landing sequence of two rovers that have been up there on Mars in the last eight or nine years, but this was much more involved,” Ferraro said of the Curiosity project. “The power requirements were a lot heavier, capability was a lot more critical.”

“We probably tested close to 100 of each type here in the development of those, and it took close to a year to make the batteries and satisfy all the requirements,” Ferraro said.

The project required a team of some 50 or so assemblers, engineers and quality control employees at EaglePicher.

“There were very intelligent people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked a decade or more on this, basically trying to figure out anything and everything that could possibly go wrong so they could mitigate. Reliability is so important; you work a decade or more and it all comes down to the landing,” Ferraro said.

EaglePicher employees have previously designed key pieces for solar systems that generated power for surface rovers on Mars, but Curiosity is nuclear powered and intended to rove for one Martian year, or almost two Earth years, around a 100-mile-wide crater that has a three-mile-high mountain in its center. It is charged with the mission of analyzing dozens of samples or rock and soil in search of microbial life, and already has begun sending images of Mars back to Earth.

“Our nervousness here wasn’t as much as the JPL; I’m sure they’re breathing a big sigh relief,” said Ferraro of the landing.

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