At Yardney, all eyes turn toward Mars

Stonington - Employees at Pawcatuck-based Yardney Technical Products are waiting anxiously to learn how the company's two lithium-ion batteries perform next week during NASA's landing of a new Mars rover known as Curiosity.

"We're looking forward to it," said Kris Johanessen, business development director for Yardney. "The confidence of the team is high."

Yardney, which employs about 150 people locally but is in the midst of a move to new headquarters in East Greenwich, R.I., plans no formal activities for the critical landing phase an hour or so after midnight Monday. But officials are hoping to be in a celebratory mood by Monday morning, when workers return to the plant, Johanessen said.

The batteries aboard Curiosity are twice as big as power sources provided by Yardney for other missions to Mars. That's because the new rover, roughly the size of a MINI Cooper car, is about twice as big as previous Mars probes.

Johanessen reported that the Yardney batteries have been performing well during the rover's nine-month journey to Mars. Other Yardney batteries have been going strong on Mars rovers for more than eight years, essentially outlasting the lives of the missions, and Johanessen said the batteries on Curiosity are made to last five to 10 years.

"The battery will not be the limiting factor (for the mission) - it will be something else," Johanessen said.

The latest $2.5 billion Mars project will come to a head when Curiosity makes a critical seven-minute maneuver into the planet's atmosphere to a precise landing within a crater. The unmanned rover's relatively large size has made the landing a difficult technological feat, requiring a novel "sky crane" approach that uses eight rockets and a cable to bring the space laboratory gently to the Martian surface.

A heat shield will protect the Yardney batteries during the entry phase from peak temperatures expected to reach 3,800 degrees, according to a report by science writer William Harwood on the website cnet.com.

Johanessen said Curiosity will not get to work on the surface of Mars right after touchdown. He expected NASA to leave the spacecraft at the landing site for a "settling period" to make sure dust from the surface of the planet kicked up by the vehicle's rockets doesn't infiltrate the vehicle.

l.howard@theday.com

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