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NM firms help Mars spacecraft power up, phone home

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Two Albuquerque firms are providing the solar electricity and network operations assistance needed for NASA’s InSight spacecraft to power up and phone home from Mars.

SolAero Technologies Corp. built the solar panels now powering the spacecraft, which landed on Mars on Monday.

This artist’s concept shows Mars InSight with its solar panels fully deployed after landing on the red planet. The panels, built by SolAero Technologies in Albuquerque, provide about 600 watts of electricity, enough for the spacecraft to conduct all its exploratory work and communications with Earth. (Nasa/Jpl-Caltech)

And Metis Technology Solutions supplies round-the-clock operations support for NASA’s Deep Space Network to send data back and forth between InSight and Earth. Both are homegrown New Mexico companies that have worked with NASA for years, offering critical components and engineering services for its near-earth and deep-space missions. It’s behind-the-scenes work that enables many of the essential functions of space-exploration probes like InSight, said Metis Space Division Manager Jim Theiss.

“We’re kind of like the phone operator who prepares the communication system to make sure it’s pointed right and working,” Theiss said. “… We’re the network operations analysts for every space probe. NASA managers tell us they need connectivity, and we roll up our sleeves to make it happen.”

For its part, SolAero has built the solar panels that power nearly every NASA flight to the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and even the sun over the past two decades, said SolAero CEO Brad Clevenger.

“We’ve supported 41 NASA missions in the last 20 years,” Clevenger said. “The Mars InSight mission is just the latest one.”

Mars InSight’s solar panels, built by SolAero Technologies in Albuquerque, were mounted on a lightweight, flexible material for folding and stowing during the journey to Mars. Engineers and technicians evaluated the panels in January at the Lockheed Martin Space facility in Colorado. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin)

That includes NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August on a first-ever voyage to the sun’s outer atmosphere, and NASA’s forthcoming Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s Europa moon.

The company, which employs 325 at two facilities at Sandia Science and Technology Park, is recognized as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of photovoltaic panels for spacecraft. It makes triple-junction photovoltaics with three levels of stacked solar cells to capture more sunlight, increasing power even in the darkest corners of space. Its carbon structures and assemblies are designed to withstand intense radiation and extreme temperatures.

The panels on InSight are unique compared to other missions because they’re mounted on “ultraflex” material, a lightweight synthetic mesh fabric that’s more flexible than other structures, Clevenger said. That allowed the panels to be folded and stowed aboard the InSight during its six-month journey to Mars.

“It folds up very tightly and deploys later into a stiff structure,” Clevenger said. “We’re now waiting for the InSight lander to take a selfie of the solar panels fully deployed on the surface of Mars.”

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems created the ultraflex material. SolAero used it to make the spacecraft’s two solar panels, which Northrop Grumman assembled. Together, they produce about 600 watts of electricity, which is all InSight needs to manage its exploratory tasks and data communications with Earth over the next two years.

“NASA is great at designing spacecraft that need only a little power to accomplish missions,” Clevenger said. “The InSight arrays are providing the equivalent of just a few light bulbs, which is enough to do all its work.”

Metis Technology has an 11-member team working 24/7 with NASA’s Deep Space Network, which manages the communications system for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. That includes massive radio antennas in Australia, Spain and California, which send and receive signals to and from InSight and all of NASA’s other space probes. Metis’ network operation analysts provide the coordinates needed for NASA communication with spacecraft.

“We do the math and science needed for the radio antennas to talk with the Martian satellites and probes,” Theiss said. “We identify antenna pointing instructions, angles, and which of the antennas are needed to accomplish communications tasks at any given time. We make all the system components line up for sending and receiving signals.”

All data from the massive radio arrays is sent to Pasadena, Calif., and from there to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory room where NASA is watching the Mars lander.

The firm, founded in 2010 by earth and space scientist Joy Colucci, employs about 100 people under NASA and Air Force support contracts for space missions, satellite operations and aeronautics-related work. Since 2014, it’s provided operation services to the Deep Space Network as a subcontractor for Virginia-based Preston, which supports NASA’s Space Communications Network Services.

“We’re thrilled to be part of the Deep Space Network team,” Colucci said. “We get to support almost all the high-visibility missions like Mars InSight and the Parker Solar Probe, which was the most recent one before this.”

At SolAero as well, excitement remains high on space missions, despite the company’s long history working with NASA.

“You could see almost every computer at the SolAero plant tuned into the Mars landing last Monday,” Clevenger said. “Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch. We’re really proud to be part of it.”