Stonington — Two years ago, Yardney Technical Products engineers had to start from scratch and design a brand-new battery that would pack twice the power of its previous products for a boldly conceived NASA mission to Mars.
The privately owned Pawcatuck company with 150 employees celebrated the success of its new battery Monday morning, a few hours after it helped guide the Mars rover, Curiosity, to a safe landing. About 50 people at Yardney's nondescript building off Mechanic Street gathered around a large cake to celebrate the key event in the $2.5 billion Mars project powered by two of the company's lithium-ion batteries.
"This really is an achievement for the whole company," Frank Puglia, director of research and development for Yardney and project manager for the company's Mars mission, said before cutting into the cake decorated with a battery image.
The Mars project came to a critical juncture Monday during a seven-minute maneuver into the planet's atmosphere that led to a precise landing of the car-sized rover within a crater. The unmanned rover's relatively large size required a novel "sky crane" approach that used eight rockets and a cable to bring the space laboratory gently to the Martian surface.
Robert Gitzendanner, executive director of lithium engineering for Yardney, said the company's batteries must have performed well under the extreme conditions imposed by a Mars landing to have been able to send photos back from the planet only minutes after the rover's landing.
Puglia, wearing a dark blue Mars Science Laboratory shirt, said, "It was a four-year effort to get the batteries designed. It's nice to get that payoff."
Yardney batteries enabled Curiosity to send the first photos back from Mars after the craft landed at about 1:30 a.m. Monday. The batteries also provided the power during a series of 76 so-called "pyrotechnic events" that allowed NASA to deploy a supersonic parachute system and heat shields used during the landing process.
About half of Yardney's employees were involved in the project.
Puglia said Yardney originally designed a battery for a Mars mission scheduled for a 2010 landing, but the voyage was delayed as other contractors struggled with some of the technical specifications. The current mission required a battery that could fit into a predefined space but with a significant step-up in power.
"In terms of energy, it has about four times what a car battery has and about half the weight," Puglia said.
The 28-volt batteries are placed within a solid piece of aircraft-grade aluminum designed to insulate them from the impact of space takeoffs and landings.
"The batteries go through a lot of temperature extremes, shakes and shocks," said Gitzendanner.
Yardney's lithium-ion product is recharged by a 95-watt nuclear-powered battery that has been getting a lot of notice. But the radioisotope power system doesn't provide enough power to do more than illuminate one lightbulb, while the Yardney batteries will be running all the complicated Mars rover maneuvers, including movements of robotic arms used to probe the planet.
Though only two Yardney batteries are aboard Curiosity, the entire Mars mission used 18 of the company's products. Ten Yardney batteries helped propel Curiosity into space on an Atlas V booster rocket.
Yardney batteries have been used on two other trips to Mars, and the company's relationship with NASA dates back to its first Apollo missions of the 1960s. In addition, Yardney hopes to be part of NASA's next mission to build the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, a successor to the now-defunct space shuttle program.
An unmanned CEV flight is expected in 2014, followed three years later by the first trip with astronauts aboard. A planned destination for the spacecraft is unknown, but one possibility is for Orion to attempt a rendezvous with an asteroid, in anticipation of possibly mining these orbiting masses for industrial metals such as platinum and ruthenium.
The new mission will require batteries with the same power as NASA has aboard Curiosity but at about half the size. Yardney officials said they believe their lithium-ion batteries can fill the bill with some tweaks to the design.
"Without better batteries, these space-exploration missions are not viable," Gitzendanner said.
But Gitzendanner pointed out that reducing the size of a battery while retaining its power potential isn't easy in a chemistry-related field. Moore's law, which relates to the doubling of electronic devices' capacity every two years, doesn't apply to batteries, he said.
The next doubling of a battery's capacity is likely to be five years down the road, added Puglia. Yardney, which specializes in custom projects for the government, has been working on a new "lithium-air" concept that uses oxygen to boost battery power, but the design won't be ready for commercial application for several years.
Yardney, which is in the midst of a move to new headquarters in East Greenwich, R.I., has been making batteries for military and space applications since the 1940s. Yardney's relationship with NASA has propelled the small company into the public eye, but it accounts for only about 20 percent of the firm's business, while another 60 percent is for Air Force contracts involving everything from B2 bombers to satellites to experimental vehicles.
Puglia pointed out that the success of the Mars mission has been built upon Yardney projects that date to the 1990s and even earlier.
"The quality of every step is what makes this work," he said.