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maxon drives fly to the Red Planet with NASA's Perseverance rover

08 July 2020

In the coming weeks, NASA will send its fifth rover to Mars. Its main mission is to collect soil samples that will be analysed on Earth later.

The rover will also carry a helicopter that will perform the first flights on the Red Planet. maxon's precision DC and BLDC motors will be used for numerous mission-critical tasks.

maxon's drive systems are omnipresent on Mars. Electric motors from Switzerland have been used in virtually every successful robotic mission over the last three decades. There are now more than 100 of them on the Red Planet and there are likely to be more soon. The launch window for NASA's next mission opens on 17 July.

An Atlas V rocket will launch the new Perseverance rover on its way to Mars, where it will seek signs of former life on the planet.

However, its most important job is to take multiple soil samples, seal them in containers and deposit them on the surface of Mars so that a future mission can return them to Earth. Several maxon motors will be used to handle the samples inside the rover. For example, maxon DC motors are installed in the robotic arm, which moves the samples from station to station. maxon motors will also be used for sealing and depositing the sample containers.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is carrying out the mission, has contracted maxon to produce ten drives for the rover. As with almost all previous Mars missions, these drives are based on standard products from maxon's catalogue but have been modified. For the first time, NASA chose brushless DC motors: nine EC 32 flat and one EC 20 flat in combination with a GP 22 UP planetary gearhead.

 Working closely with JPL specialists, maxon engineers developed the drives over several years and tested them thoroughly to achieve the highest standards of quality.

"We've learned a lot from this exciting project," says Robin Phillips, Head of the maxon SpaceLab. "We now have very broad expertise in space applications and have established quality assurance processes that meet the expectations of the industry. Customers from other industries such as the medical sector, where requirements are often similar, also benefit from this know-how."

Space missions place the highest demands on drive systems. These include vibrations during the rocket launch, vacuum during the journey, impacts on landing, and harsh conditions on the surface of Mars, where temperatures fluctuate between -125 and +20 degrees Celsius and dust penetrates everywhere.

maxon DC motors control the Mars helicopter

The Perseverance rover is expected to land on Mars on February 18, 2021 – but it won't be alone. A drone helicopter called Ingenuity will be attached to the underside of the rover. It weighs 1.8 kilograms, is solar-powered and will perform several short flights, as well as take overhead images.

 The main goal of this experiment is to test the concept for further drones of this kind. Once again, drive specialist maxon is involved. Six brushed DCX motors with a diameter of 10 millimetres control the tilt of the rotor blades and therefore the direction of flight. The drives are very light, dynamic and highly energy-efficient. These properties are crucial because every gram counts on the Mars helicopter.

 Flying on Mars is not easy. The atmosphere is extremely thin, roughly comparable to the conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30 kilometres (18.6 miles).

The drone helicopter already flew in a simulated test environment in the JPL laboratory. Whether it will lift off on Mars remains to be seen. First, other obstacles, such as the rocket launch, must be overcome.

"We hope that everything goes well and that we'll soon see our drives in action on Mars," says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon. "We're all keeping our fingers crossed."


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