PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The new robotic rover exploring Mars is powered by a high-tech battery made by a southern New England company.
Yardney Technical Products created the lithium ion battery for NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on the red planet early Monday. The company is in the middle of a move from Stonington, Conn., to a new headquarters in East Greenwich, R.I.
Yardney made batteries for three previous vehicles sent to Mars: the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the Phoenix lander. It also designs batteries for the U.S. military for use under water, in the air and in space. Still, company President Vince Yevoli acknowledged a sense of relief after finding out that Curiosity made it to the Martian surface in one piece.
"I woke up this morning and the first thing I did was check to make sure it landed," Yevoli said. "How great is it to say 'hey, our batteries are on Mars.' But it's really a mission you cannot fail."
The 1-ton, $2.5-billion rover actually has two batteries — one is a backup — plus a plutonium reactor. Its mission is to analyze soil to determine whether Mars may have had the right building blocks for life. While the nuclear reactor powers the rover's basic systems, Yardney's batteries power the more energy-intensive scientific tools and cameras.
More than $1 million was spent designing and testing the battery, Yevoli said.
Curiosity's batteries aren't the only connection to New England. Brown University geology professor Ralph Milliken is a member of the mission's science team, focusing on analyzing Curiosity's data for clues to the planet's geologic past. He'll spend the next 90 days in NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., working a schedule based on the Martian day, which is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. Right now it's a schedule that has Milliken starting his shift in the middle of Earth's night.
Milliken was with the science team at the Pasadena lab monitoring Curiosity's progress as it descended through the Martian atmosphere.
"We were cheering and clapping with every little signal," he said in comments provided by Brown. "...When they (Mission Control) got the final signal confirming that touchdown had occurred, all 300 to 400 of us went pretty crazy."