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October 3, 2012

LTU grads help make history on Mars

Brothers create sensors that control Curiosity rover’s arm

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Mohammad Mokhberi, left, and Javad Mokhbery, graduates of LTU in Southfield, show a sensor similar to the one that monitors the drilling force in the sample-gathering robotic arm of the Mars rover Curiosity.

SOUTHFIELD — Brothers Javad Mokhbery and Mohammad Mokhberi grew up in Iran, fascinated by outer space and inspired by NASA’s mission on the moon and beyond.

Mokhberi, now 62, remembers watching NASA’s Apollo mission on TV as a kid. Mokhbery, 60, regularly read Time Magazine and followed American technology from the age of 11.

Decades later, while the world watches NASA’s rover Curiosity explore Mars, the brothers  and graduates of Lawrence Technological University are not just reading about the events, they’re helping create them.

Their company, Futek Advanced Sensor Technology Inc., based in Irvine, Calif., is responsible for the sensors that guide Curiosity’s arm on Mars.

“I was very intrigued and fascinated with space exploration and activities and had very high values for NASA scientist and engineers, so since then I followed up all space programs, from Apollo to space shuttle and all Mars missions very closely,” Mokhbery, who earned a mechanical engineering degree from LTU in 1979, said via email.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, he worked at Rockwell International in California with a team of scientists and engineers who had designed and manufactured Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. “That was like a dream come true,” he said.

He and his brother, who earned an industrial management degree from LTU in 1978, worked their way through college to earn their degrees in Southfield, and they eventually ended up together in California, where they began working full time for their own company in 1989.

Their company makes sensors for the aerospace, medical, robotic/automation and automotive industries. It has more than 100 employees, including 11 engineers, and its revenues will reportedly approach $20 million this year.

The company develops load cells, torque sensors, pressure sensors, multi-axial sensors and related software for low-temperature and vacuum environments.

Raytheon, MIT, Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all partnered with Futek.  For the NASA/JPL Mars rover Curiosity, Futek designed two unique sensors to operate in the low temperatures on Mars: A cryogenic (low temperature) multi-axial load and torsion sensor is responsible for monitoring the Rover’s drilling arm and its robotic maneuvers as it retrieves sediments for analysis, and a secondary Futek cryogenic load cell supervises the precision and force used to drill directly into the surface of Mars.

“Considering that a sensor is the main mean or tool of communication between human and robot, the Futek sensors provide feedback during drilling operation while collecting samples from the surface of Mars,” Mokhbery said in his email. “Without our sensor, the robot will not be intelligent enough to detect challenges during operation.”

Mokhbery said it would be like trying to drive a car without a speedometer, fuel gauge or oil indicator.  “What would be the chances of getting to the destination ever or (in a) timely fashion?” he wrote.

  Professor Philip Olivier, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at LTU, said Futek’s sensors help the rover be both “rugged and precise,” and meet the demands of advanced space exploration.

“Most sensors need to operate over a wide range of temperatures, this case 159 degrees Fahrenheit,” Oliver explained. “These temperature variations make it hard to get the accuracy required, since the components of the sensor expand (or) shrink based on temperature. This causes the torques/forces to change, since the sensor will interact with its support structure differently, depending on it size.  To get the required accuracy, Futek chose to keep the sensor temperature constant by super cooling it.”

Oliver added that when moon rocks were examined, they were brought back as entire pieces and then drilled into for internal samples. On Mars, however, the rover must take a different approach.

“Since these rocks will not come back to Earth, Curiosity must do what humans used to do. This includes drilling into the rock,” he explained. “To get a good sample, the force and torque must be controlled so the rock does not break and the sample comes from a known depth within the rock.”

The sensors on Curiosity’s arm, which can withstand a wide range of temperatures, as low as 124 degrees below zero, will help in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission to study whether the Gale Crater area of the planet has evidence of past or present habitable environments. 

Mokhbery said the first sensor is the shape of a doughnut and is a little larger than a $1 coin. The second is a multicomponent sensor in the robot’s wrist to monitor all forces and movements of the arm during its operation. It’s about the size of a coffee mug.

He added that the customized project for the Mars rover, from design to testing and support, took about five years.

“If a standard similar sensor takes 10-15 hours of labor and eight-12 weeks of process time, these sensors took hundreds of hours of technical labor and engineering time,” he said in his email.

NASA’s rover Curiosity departed from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Nov. 26. It landed on Mars Aug. 6. Mokhbery said he, his brother and the rest of the Futek staff received daily updates on Curiosity and NASA’s mission on Mars. For the brothers, it’s a reminder of how they are living out their childhood dreams.

“I always wished to go to Mars,” Mokhbery said in his email. “Now we at least have two sensors there.”


Follow the mission on Mars

More information about Curiosity is online at http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl. You can follow the mission on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity.

Five facts about Curiosity’s mission on Mars

Curiosity’s mission will take one Mars year, or 98 weeks. It is equipped with 10 instruments that weigh 165 pounds. In total, the rover weighs in at nearly 2,000 pounds. Its length is 10 feet, with a width of 9 feet, and it stands 7 feet high.

Its robotic arm reaches seven feet and deploys two instruments to collect powered samples from rocks, scoop soil, prepare surfaces and deliver samples for analytic instruments.

Mars has the same land area as Earth, with a terrain that is reminiscent of a cold, rocky desert. Its mass is one-tenth that of Earth, and its gravity is only 38 percent as strong as Earth’s.

When Curiosity launched, it weighed more than 8,400 pounds and had a travel distance of approximately 352 million miles from Earth to Mars. The one-way radio transit time from Mars to Earth on landing day was 13.8 minutes.

The Curiosity mission on Mars costs $2.5 billion, according to NASA — $1.8 billion was for the spacecraft development and science investigations, with additional amounts for launch and operations.

 

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jessica Strachan at jstrachan@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1108.