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As NASA prepares for the launch of its newest Mars rover in 2020, Timken engineers have designed and tested its miniature precision bearings for the project, as they have for every Mars rover the United States has landed to date. Timken solutions will be given the ultimate test when they launch into orbit.

NASA’s most recent rover, Curiosity, entered space in 2011 and continues to traverse the Red Planet eight years later. The success of the $2.5-billion project hinges greatly on the performance of miniature components, including Timken ¼" (6.35 mm) radial ball bearings. Timken precision bearings keep critical components of the rovers functioning properly — from the descent system used to reach the surface of Mars, to its carousel system to collect environmental samples, to its small vacuum pump for sample analysis.

To prepare for the 2020 launch, NASA tasked Timken aerospace bearing design experts with creating bearings that not only could properly function on a different planet, but also could endure 140 million miles of spaceflight before arriving at their destination. Timken specialists used proprietary SYBER modeling software to replicate the bearings’ radial and axial load conditions, ensuring the bearings could perform in high-speed end-use applications over the course of many years.

The radial ball bearings will be part of a vehicle that is ultimately bolted onto a rocket; therefore, they had to be designed to withstand a substantial amount of vibration, contact stresses, and shaft deflections to avoid damage during the launch. Timken bearings also will play a key role in the descent system, ensuring the brake shutter will safely lower the rover at a controlled speed from the orbiting delivery vehicle to the planet’s surface. Seven precision-crafted ball bearings will function as part of a high-reduction gearbox. The gearbox features a small motor with components that rapidly spin to create power outputs similar to a larger motor but without the added weight.

Material and lubrication choices also are imperative when preparing for spaceflight. Specialized lubricants and other materials must perform well in vacuum environments and when exposed to extreme heat, otherwise they risk drying out, cracking, or failing. In addition, the specified materials cannot exhibit any outgassing, as this could put sensitive instrumentation at risk.

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