Mars and the machine

April 23, 2013, European Space Agency
Calipers for maximum precision measurement from Carl Zeiss that help make airplanes safer, improve cars and make plastic parts more resilient. Credit: Carl Zeiss

Without hi-tech magnetic sensors, rovers wouldn't be able to roam around Mars. These same sensors will soon boost terrestrial travel by improving the machinery that moulds parts for cars and aircraft here on Earth.

These devices will 'feel' parts in exquisite detail, noting features like the width and depth of drilled holes, helping to create perfect 3D pictures of each highly complex piece.

It takes up to 20 minutes to beam information from Mars to Earth – more than enough time for a rover to become fatally stuck if it were being remotely driven by a human here.

To help avoid this problem, engineers have turned to a 'magneto-resistive' sensor that converts into . Attached to the motor shaft, the sensor registers how many times the wheel has rotated, which helps the rover to navigate itself.

"Our technology was a pretty important enabler for the bigger rovers on Mars," said Dr Rolf Slatter, CEO of Sensitec, the German maker of the . On 's Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, these sensors measure the motor positions for the wheels and the robotic arms.

"We use a slightly different Sensitec angular sensor in ESA technology programmes for two walking robots," said Gianfranco Visentin, Head of ESA's Automation and Robotics. "They are mounted in the leg mechanisms to help the Aramies and SpaceClimber robots walk."

"Really serious rover business goes hand and hand with this technology," added Dr Slatter, whose company sent their first sensors to Mars in 2004.

"There were rovers before, but most used other technology that was either much bigger or less robust."

Mars and the machine
Artist's impression of NASA's MER Spirit rover on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA
Spin-off from ESA event

At a workshop organised by ESA's Technology Transfer Programme Office and its German technology broker company MST Aerospace, this special magnetic sensor was spotted by Carl Zeiss Industrielle Messtechnik GmbH.

"I'm always looking for some sort of improvements, and this caught my eye," said Thomas Engel, Manager of Sensor Systems Development and Innovation Management at Carl Zeiss, which builds the complex machines used to create anything from car parts to medical devices.

"Discussing with Carl Zeiss, we understood that this special technology developed for rovers to make them able to drive around exploring Mars could help the company in their development of customised, robust and precise production machines," said MST's Dr Werner Dupont.

Five months later, the spin-off was on the way, noted Mr Engel: "We sketched the first ideas on a napkin."

Space sensor turns out 3D pictures

At Carl Zeiss, these sensors will have an entirely new role. Instead of tracking the distances travelled across the surface of Mars, they will measure the very small, very complex mechanical parts that go into the machinery they build, to produce parts for medical equipment, semiconductors, cameras, dental prosthetics and others.

"We want to increase accuracy," said Mr Engel. They are testing sensors that touch the sides of a part, noting features like the size, width and depth of various drilled holes. The objective is to create perfect, 3D pictures of each highly complex part.

In addition to its extreme accuracy, "This sensor technology doesn't make very much noise, which is better for precision measurements."

The whole process of developing these sensors for rovers was important for the company, helping to verify the technology's accuracy and strength.

"For space, very extreme, very extensive and expensive tests are conducted, and learning about the technology's robustness in space is of huge advantage to us," emphasised Dr Slatter.

"If a sensor can survive in space, then 99 out of 100 times Earth applications are peanuts."

The next space voyage for Sensitec's sensors could be on ESA's Bepicolombo mission to Mercury.

Explore further: New Mars rover digitally designed and tested

Related Stories

New Mars rover digitally designed and tested

July 30, 2012

NASA scientists used software from Siemens to help create the new Mars rover Curiosity, which is currently on its way to Mars. The 900-kilogram rover is the largest Mars vehicle to date. It will reach the red planet on August ...

Three generations of rovers with crouching engineers

January 20, 2012

( -- Two spacecraft engineers join a grouping of vehicles providing a comparison of three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The setting is JPL's Mars Yard ...

Space foil helping to build safer cars

March 19, 2012

A special foil sensor developed to measure the pressure on a spaceplane’s wings during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere is now helping to build safer cars.

Space sensor makes bolts smarter

December 13, 2010

Technology developed for the International Space Station and a Mars rover is helping European auto-parts manufacturers to engineer lighter, stronger and safer drivetrains and axles.

Space sensor helps produce 'greener' glass

May 3, 2011

What has making glass in common with space exploration? The special technology to measure oxygen atoms outside space vehicles is now being used in the glass industry to produce super-efficient energy-saving windows.

Recommended for you

The epoch of planet formation, times twenty

December 12, 2018

Astronomers have cataloged nearly 4,000 exoplanets in orbit around distant stars. Though the discovery of these newfound worlds has taught us much, there is still a great deal we do not know about the birth of planets and ...

Periodic radio signal detected from the blazar J1043+2408

December 12, 2018

Using Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), astronomers have detected a periodic signal in the radio light curve of the blazar J1043+2408, which could be helpful in improving our understanding about the nature of blazars ...

Juno mission halfway to Jupiter science

December 12, 2018

On Dec. 21, at 8:49:48 a.m. PST (11:49:48 a.m. EST) NASA's Juno spacecraft will be 3,140 miles (5,053 kilometers) above Jupiter's cloud tops and hurtling by at a healthy clip of 128,802 mph (207,287 kilometers per hour). ...

Rosetta witnesses birth of baby bow shock around comet

December 12, 2018

A new study reveals that, contrary to first impressions, Rosetta did detect signs of an infant bow shock at the comet it explored for two years – the first ever seen forming anywhere in the solar system.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.