Local company journeys to Mars

By on August 8, 2012

By: LAURIE KNOWLES CALLANAN Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer



Photo courtesy of NASA
Free of its heat shield, back shell and parachute, Curiosity landed successfully on Mars on Aug. 6 at 1:32 a.m. to begin its 23-month analysis of the Martian surface.

After nine months in space destined for Mars, NASA’s Curiosity rover faced a final "seven minutes of terror" early Sunday morning.

And a Denver, Pa. company helped to make sure the landing on Mars was seven minutes of success.

Weaver Industries, Inc. of 425 S. Fourth St., Denver, was responsible for machining the unique patented heat shield that played a vital role in keeping the space vehicle from burning up upon entry into Mars’ atmosphere and not crashing to pieces as it landed.

When the Curiosity hurtled toward Mars, it was traveling at 13,200 miles per hour. A parachute and crane type device helped to slow the craft so that the automobile-sized Curiosity could land safely. It was a good thing too. The mobile space laboratory has a price tag of $2.5 billion.

It was just as important to prevent the rover from disintegrating in its fiery descent with temperatures as high at 3,800 degrees F. That’s where the heat shield that was made at Weaver Industries came in.

"The heat shield had to protect the Curiosity, and it worked," said John Weaver, president of Weaver Industries. "It was a very exciting time for everyone involved."

Ironically, Weaver Industries worked with a famous company in Denver, Colo. Lockheed Martin MSL developed the design for the rover, while Fiber Materials, Inc. of Biddeford, Maine, designed the materials for the heat shield.

"And we machined the heat shield here in Denver, Pennsylvania, the second largest Denver in the United States," said Weaver.

Weaver Industries has been in business since 1954, after Weaver’s father, Harold Weaver, began in the basement of his home, supplying foundries with patterns. The modest operation has grown into a 60,000 square foot plant in the center of Denver. With some 78 employees, the mainly graphite products range from tiny components of only a few ounces to huge, 10-ton equipment for the steel industry.

But there was something extraordinary going on at the ordinary-looking BLDG 5 at Weaver Industries. Over the years, Weaver has been working with NASA and Lockheed Martin to produce materials used in space travel and exploration. Going back to 1961’s Mercury Mission with Alan Shepard as the second astronaut to travel into space, Weaver Industries manufactured products used in the spacecraft.

"We also worked on the Trailblazer weather satellite and the Telstar I communications satellite," said Weaver, adding that they usually kept things pretty low-key about their outer space presence.

Weaver Industries also machined materials used to build the Transatlantic telephone system used to transmit communications across the Atlantic Ocean.

"We like to say that our workmanship spans the depths of the ocean, all the way to Mars," said Weaver.

With the successful landing of the Curiosity rover at 1:32 a.m. on Aug. 6, it was difficult to contain their enthusiasm. Just like NASA scientists who cheered when the seven minutes of terror turned to triumph, Weaver employees were pleased with the results of their hard work and precision machining.

The material used to make the heat shield was a proprietary material developed by Fiber Materials. Since only one heat shield was being manufactured, it had to be perfect.

"Of course we felt some trepidation. It had to work," said Weaver, credited his dedicated employees with meeting the challenge over nearly seven months.

The Lockheed Martin aeroshell is comprised of a back shell and a heat shield. The back shell protected the Curiosity rover during cruise and descent, providing structural support for the parachute and the unique descent stage, a system that will lower the rover for a soft landing on the surface of Mars.

The back shell is covered with a thermal protection system composed of a cork/silicone super light material that originated with the Mars Viking landings of the 1970s. With the extreme heat that the Curiosity would face as it entered the Mars atmosphere, designers developed a heat shield using a tiled Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection system.

"It was the first time PICA has flown on a Mars mission," said Weaver.

The plan was to have the Curiosity descend to the point where a sky crane could lower it gently on to the surface of Mars, in a very exact spot chosen by scientists for its flat landing position and proximity to areas with potential for clues.

Now that it has landed safely and intact, the Curiosity is set to begin its two-year mission to investigate whether the area of Mars ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.

According to the NASA website, Curiosity’s search area will be a 96-mile crater near the equator, and one of the lowest points on Mars. The basin, known as Gale Crater after an Australian astronomer, has been compared to the Grand Canyon, since they both have their geological history layered in the rock. There is also a three-mile-high mountain called Mount Sharp, with a basin that scientists might possibly have held water at one time.

Soon after it landed, the one-ton rover began transmitting black-and-white images of the Martian landscape. In months to come, scientists anticipate that will transmit millions of images that will help them determine if Mars was ever able to support organic life.

The rover is not designed to gather or find evidence of live or fossilized life. Instead, its complex scientific instruments are intended to search for carbon-based compounds that are considered to be essential to microbial life.

The heat shield did its part, noted Weaver, adding that it will now become space trash, lost on Mars for all eternity.

"I guess you could say there’s a little bit of Weaver Industries on Mars," said Weaver.

Which makes Weaver Industries more than a regional company, more than a national company and more than an international company.

You might call it an interplanetary company, based in Denver, Pennsylvania. More MARS, page A15

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