Moving Space to Earth: Perseverance Tech for Earth ApplicationsMay 21, 2021 by Tyler Charboneau
Space technology is a testbed for promising, new technologies, not only for space but for Earth applications as well. How are recent advances in space affecting Earth?
From CMOS to batteries––space initiatives have often yielded technology that had a place in space, but also found a home on Earth. With the new "Space Race" taking place, and the monumental success of NASA's Preservation rover landing on Mars, more innovations should trickle down from space to Earth applications. A few companies like Honeybee Robotics, Tempo Automation, and others have recently crafted electronics with surprising Earthen applications. How might this become the norm in the coming years?
A graph showing the global space industry breakdown. Image used courtesy of Global Future Council on Space Technologies and World Economic Forum
Exciting Tech finds a Mechanized Medium
NASA and its partners have deployed space technologies in numerous ways––via spacecraft, satellites, and aboard the famed International Space Station (ISS). By subjecting electrical components to unique operating conditions, engineers have unlocked new capabilities. For example, microelectronics are hardened to withstand extreme temperature variances, radiation exposure, and continuous operation. Though space technology requires unique fabrication and design, the outcomes are typically worthwhile.
Enter Perseverance: one of NASA’s newest Mars rover and the latest platforms for agnostic technological development. Engineering efforts have again focused on creating hardened systems––though the onboard functions can have clear applications back home. Honeybee Robotics and Tempo Automation have teamed up to produce breakthrough hardware.
A breakdown of Honeybee Robotic's drill system. Image used courtesy of the Honeybee Robotics
Honeybee Robotic’s Rotary Percussion Corer has excelled where others have labored in obtaining geological samples. There’s optimism that this coring method will assist geologists on Earth. Accordingly, the Perseverance’s drill constitutes a happy marriage between mechanical engineering and “space-proof” electrical engineering.
Honeybee has already begun licensing its breakoff-bits technology for commercial use, especially since most of the components claim to be exceptionally durable.
Video Meets Circuitry Design
Meanwhile, Tempo Automation brings novel fabrication technologies to the table. Boosted by camera developments for Perseverance’s landing, Tempo ensured its PCBs provided ample power delivery and interfacing functionality. The secret ingredient is in the manufacturing process.
The San Francisco-based company has dramatically improved this via automation and detailed documentation of each production step.
Supplemental QC processes include the following:
- X-ray imaging
- Ionic cleanliness data
- Automated optical inspection
- Component tracing
Additionally, its fabrication simulation software brings photorealistic representations of final designs to the forefront. Fabrication simulation essentially turns CAD drawings into accurate prototypes––ultimately making it easier to create PCB batches. Sharp documentation will also help customers uncover pre-production design flaws.
Even while adhering to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) standards, Tempo Automation’s reported turnaround time on prototype boards was merely a week. Added inspection processes have only minorly increased that development time, where necessary. This advancement in PCB fabrication shortens prototype timelines and increases the standard of PCB manufacturing in general. This innovation could see real-world effects, with the potential to spread to other fabrication facilities.
Another benefit from technology for space that has potential here on Earth is ultraviolet lasers for surface scanning.
Ultraviolet Lasers Enable Surface Scanning
Scientists have always been fascinated by the mysteries Mars has harbored. One example is the discovery of subglacial lakes on the planet confirmed the existence of liquid water.
Accordingly, researchers are still unraveling the mysteries behind the surface composition and the existence of life—which unmanned devices could theoretically introduce to the Red Planet. Substantial cleaning and isolation efforts help ensure that contaminants aren’t transported to Mars.
NASA's SHERLOC system on Perseverance. Image used courtesy of NASA
The device uses a deep UV fluorescence laser to detect chemical and organic compounds. It’s believed that operators could uncover signs of past life—namely resident bacteria—though this isn’t necessarily expected. The SHERLOC laser is an ideal pairing for Perseverance’s aforementioned Percussive Corer, as this machinery can drill beyond the planet’s topsoil. Like arctic ice cores, these deeper layers can be treasure-troves of information.
Other industries have taken notice and have decided it could be a prime candidate for inspecting contamination in the realm of pharmaceuticals because UV light reacts strongly with many materials. The technology can measure material traces—especially critical for uncovering drug-based impurities or mismeasurements.
Additionally, that spectrometer technology is adaptable to the wastewater treatment world. By determining contaminant levels, users can evaluate targeted treatment plans—therefore boosting safety and efficiency.
Future Plans and the new "Space Race"
2021 is rife with possibilities for space-inspired technological development. Over 20 projects across different phases are planned throughout the year—touching upon applications in environmental sensing, radio telescoping, cryo-technology, transmission, and batteries.
It’s feasible that breakthroughs in any area could drive development forward at the consumer and commercial levels. The latter is more likely since these technologies are experimental, rare, and incredibly expensive to implement. For example, traditional deep UV lasers can cost upwards of $100,000 apiece. The pressure is on engineers to create more budget-friendly technologies with greater ubiquity.
What about the space race?
Consider other outlets like Formula 1, where teams regularly compete to deliver engine upgrades, chassis developments, and electronics implementations. Owners and companies pour millions into these efforts—not only to best competitors but to bring core developments to everyday vehicles.
There’s no reason why a similar dynamic can’t play out between sparring nations. Space-based competition regarding exploration, surveillance, and weaponry technologies has already pushed electronics design forward. EEs eager to bring niche technologies mainstream could have many exciting opportunities ahead.
Interested in news on the Perseverance rover? Catch up on the landing and technology down below.