Facility designs bearings for Mars Rover

Muskegon plant has been putting components designed and/or made in West Michigan into space since the 1980s.
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The Mars Rover Perseverance 3 contains crucial parts designed and engineered in Muskegon. Courtesy NASA

A global company many years ago began designing in Muskegon special application bearings for missions in space, and its work can be found today on the Perseverance Mars Rover that’s currently collecting samples on the red planet.

SKF USA — which is part of Göteborg, Sweden-based SKF Group — is based in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and has its North American Technical Center in Plymouth, as well as a design and production facility in Muskegon and a manufacturing plant in Sumter, South Carolina. The latter two it obtained when the company acquired Kaydon in 2013.

The Muskegon plant, which opened in 1941 to serve the war effort, designs and/or manufactures ball bearings and roller bearings for the aerospace, defense, industrial machinery and heavy equipment markets.

Isidoro Mazzitelli, director of product development and engineering, Americas, at SKF USA in Plymouth, recently spoke to the Business Journal about the company’s work in the aerospace industry and the bearings on the Mars Rover in particular.

Each time the Perseverance collects or handles rock and regolith samples in the Jezero Crater during its multiple-year mission on the surface of the red planet — the mission was launched in July 2020 and the rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18 — key components from SKF will facilitate those activities, Mazzitelli said.

Enabling the Mars Rover’s core operations in the harsh environment are the Kaydon RealiSlim thin-section ball bearings, designed and engineered by SKF at the company’s global thin-section bearing engineering center in Muskegon and produced at its manufacturing hub in Sumter, South Carolina.

These components contribute to the survival of the rover’s main robotic arm, sample collecting turret, tool bit carousel and sample handling assembly during a months-long trip through space — and its function as intended on the Mars surface. SKF also supplied critical bearings for the mission’s launch vehicle, which carried the rover and its lander into space.

SKF bearings are playing an integral role in the process of sample collection on Mars. When the rover starts to collect samples on the surface, the robotic arm maneuvers into place and the tool bit carousel whirrs into action, deploying tools to drill or abrade material, which are then collected by the sample collecting turret, aka “the hand,” and transferred to the sample handling assembly for processing onboard the rover, and eventually a potential return to Earth for analysis via a future Mars mission.

“The bearings we designed and built to help the rover perform its core science activities were based on several models of Kaydon thin-section ball bearings customized by our engineers to minimize weight and save space while retaining maximum functionality and reliability for a mission where repair or replacement is simply not an option,” Mazzitelli said. He added space bearings must be a small fraction of the weight of standard bearing assemblies while also being large — about two meters in diameter in some cases — as well as reducing friction and enduring extremely low temperatures of more than 200 degrees below zero.

Kaydon bearing solutions often are customized from baseline models for specific customers and commonly used in applications that require a balance between strength, weight, size, functionality and reliability — including robotic surgical equipment, automated precision manufacturing, detailed painting, aircraft systems, airport security scanners and medical CT imagers.

In addition to the latest mission, SKF has a decades-long history as a supplier to global space programs, dating all the way back to NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

The Muskegon facility’s special application bearings have been in space since the 1980s and were featured on the following missions, Mazzitelli said:

  • Previous MARS Rovers (2004 and 2012), Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity (several bearings, steering actuators and other parts, designed in Muskegon and manufactured in Sumter)
  • Space shuttles including the Columbia (1981) and the International Space Station (ISS). The robotic manipulator arm is equipped with bearings designed and manufactured in Muskegon, which were used to build the ISS.
  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • Various satellites and space exploration probes

“Our company’s bearings, seals and other products have helped enable a wide range of spacecraft and missions for more than 40 years,” said John Schmidt, president, SKF USA. “Our parts have flown on the previous space missions, dozens of commercial and government satellites, space-borne telescopes, a wide range of rocket launch vehicles and in astronauts’ spacesuits. When conditions become critical and applications demanding, engineering knowledge is the only way to success.”

Mazzitelli said SKF is always looking for more engineers to join its design team.

“There are not so many people in the world who are able to make these types of bearings,” he said.

While experience in aerospace engineering is a plus, he said it’s not required, as all new hires will go through the SKF training academy and will learn on the job. He said most of all, he values diversity, fresh eyes, passion, creativity/futuristic thinking, and a willingness to learn and grow.

He added it is an exciting time to enter the aerospace field, as like other manufacturing environments, it is harnessing the robotics, automation, design and connectivity of Industry 4.0 to meet customer expectations.

More information about SKF is at skf.com/us.

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