Innovation From Outer Space! Exploring NASA's Mars Effect

When NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the world was watching. Here's a look at two companies that received an innovation bump from working on the rover.

When the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars, it was the culmination of years of fevered NASA planning. Curiosity was NASA's first large-scale public space exploration mission since the Space Shuttle program ended, and the SUV-sized rover's dramatic landing made headlines around the world. NASA, however, isn't a one-stop shop. Getting Curiosity to Mars and sending pictures back to Earth required extensive collaboration with hundreds of private firms. The extensive R&D programs required to get the Curiosity rover going spurred technical development around the world, creating benefits that will return to the consumer-goods market.

Curiosity's technological development included world-class power, software engineering, telecommunications, and aerospace technology. Innovations that researchers have worked on for years can also be leveraged for more earthbound use. Just think of it as the Mars Effect.

Siemens PLM, a division of the massive multinational dedicated to product lifecycle management software, helped develop many of the software tools used to develop Curiosity. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used the company's software suite to simulate the Martian environment in stress tests over the past few years. "Almost 10 years ago, JPL engineers needed to meet rigid deadlines and needed a software suite. We put together a high-quality, almost unprecedented product for them," Siemens' Tim Nichols tells Fast Company.

The PLM software gave the space agency the CAD, computer aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer aided engineering (CAE) tools necessary to design Curiosity. Using the software suite, NASA was able to both design Curiosity's mechanical parts and to run it through extensive simulations of Martian conditions.

When Curiosity arrived on Mars, NASA turned to Amazon's cloud to transmit images to Earth. Scientists at JPL used Amazon Web Services (AWS) to store and capture images and metadata from the rover. By using cloud servers, the space agency was able to cope with the massive worldwide demand for images from Mars. In the course of a few weeks leading up to Curiosity's landing, Amazon and JPL collaborated on a massive cloud video streaming service that hooked directly into NASA's satellite feed.

According to Khawaja Shams, a software engineer at the JPL, the laboratory began using cloud services approximately four years ago. Amazon's solution offered the JPL a rapid way of getting video and pictures from Mars to millions of viewers on Earth. NASA procured extra equipment for the big burst in viewing as Curiosity landed on Mars and coordinated closely with Amazon to make sure they'd be able to get video to worldwide audiences. In order to get video off Curiosity, NASA used a variety of backend systems that performed admirably during the global news spectacle.

The JPL has an entire department, the Mars Science Laboratory, that is dedicated to working with the private sector to create innovative technology for Martian exploration. Large aerospace and defense firms such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics created parts for Curiosity, as did a host of smaller firms.

NASA already has another Martian mission planned. The InSight lander is scheduled to land in 2016 with high-tech seismic equipment to examine the planet's core. Lockheed Martin has won the contract to build the InSight Lander.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Find Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, on Twitter and Google+.

[Image: Flickr user NASA]

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