Eaton C-seals are 'out of this world' on NASA Rover bound for Mars
Artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory approaching Mars. The spacecraft is scheduled to land in August 2012
For years Eaton has supplied aerospace products and technologies to support NASA missions. Now Eaton high-pressure seals are helping NASA scientists unlock the secrets of Mars.
Eaton provided specially manufactured seals for the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft that launched into space in November 2011. Named “Curiosity,” the nuclear powered rover is expected to reach the Red Planet in August 2012 to search for past or present conditions favorable for life.
Eaton “C” seals can be found in 38 critical locations throughout the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, or SAM, one of Curiosity’s extensive suites of sampling and analysis instruments. After the rover lands on Mars’ surface, it will begin searching for carbon containing compounds and other life-related elements.
Curiosity set off on its 354-million-mile journey to Mars with enough helium for SAM to complete the eight month trip and to explore the planet’s surface for two years.
SAM is equipped with the most advanced laboratory tools ever developed by NASA for a Mars venture and relies on high-pressure helium to function. Any leaks in the helium supply, no matter how miniscule, could affect SAM’s ability to satisfy some of the scientific requirements of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Eaton started working with NASA in 2008 to develop a high-pressure seal for the SAM instrument suite. The project team decided to modify a “C” seal in Eaton’s catalogue so that it could meet stringent requirements for high-preassure helium and vacuum-sealing capabilities.
“Eaton manufactures ultra-low leakage parts for a large number of high-tolerance applications,” said Matt Roach, Eaton senior product design engineer. “We were able to use our plating shop, along with key process improvements, to improve the seal’s capabilities.”
Eaton’s solution for “C” seals involved a change in the manufacturing process. Drawing from their vast experience in high-pressure and low-leakage requirement applications, engineers at Eaton’s facility in Beltsville, Md., developed a multilayered plating technique to produce a virtually leak-proof seal for the SAM suite.
The manufacturing team applied multiple layers of metallic plating, including gold, a non-reactive, ductile plating material ideal for high-tolerance applications.
As project leader, Roach applied his Six Sigma training to Eaton’s design and testing processes to optimize the seal for NASA’s requirements.
“After testing, we found that the plating process improvements had a significant effect in leak prevention,” Roach said. “Having plating capabilities in-house is an advantage that fosters collaboration between our manufacturing and design groups, enabling them to deliver superior results for our customers.”
NASA performed several leak-detection tests using the specially manufactured seals. The results proved that Eaton’s plating processes achieved extremely low leak rates required for SAM.
Outer space isn’t new territory for Eaton products. Eaton began supplying rocket engine sensors for NASA in the 1960s and has manufactured products and components for the Space Shuttle program, the Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn and the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer, or GEM, scheduled to launch in 2014.
“It’s quite an achievement and an honor for our products to fly on NASA missions,” said Jeff Swensen, Eaton plant manager of the Beltsville facility. “This speaks to the innovation of our employees, who stayed focused on this project until they found a solution for the customer. I want to thank our team for turning this into a success story for NASA and for Eaton.”