San Diego Companies Contribute to Mars 2020 Mission

At least three San Diego-based companies played roles in Thursday's launch of the Mars Perseverance rover

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NASA's latest mission to Mars is officially underway.

The Perseverance rover lifted-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 4:50 a.m. California time Thursday aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Several San Diego-based companies were watching closely, including ATA Engineering in Sabre Springs.

“Every time I watch a launch I get goosebumps and tears in my eyes," said Tricia Sur, Vice President of Business Development at ATA Engineering. "It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work from a very large team of talented people."

ATA Engineering provides support to the aerospace and defense industries and has worked on four other Mars missions. For the Mars 2020 project, ATA worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to analyze and test some of the rover's sub-systems and components.

“Looking at the number of hours, it’s over 54,000 hours of support, which would be the equivalent of 27 people working full-time for a year," Sur said. "So, it was quite a large project for us involving many of our staff.”

Kurt Knutson is one of the engineers who has been working on the project and serves as ATA's Technical Director of Software Services. He said a big chunk of the work they did involved vibration testing and analysis.

"During the launch, there’s an incredible amount of vibration that all of these subsystems will see," Knutson said. “Things could come loose if they’re not properly connected and so there’s a lot of mechanics and other simulations that go into that."

NASA's newest Mars rover, Perseverance, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday morning.

Perseverance is now on a six-month, 300-million-mile journey to Mars, where it will use a 7-foot-long robotic arm to collect rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth in the future.

“The arm has to be able to manipulate the turret, which has several of the instruments as well as a lot of specialized equipment for getting these samples – coring the samples, getting them into the rover,” Knutson said.

The arm, or remote sensing mast, also has several cameras on it, which were created by another local company -- Malin Space Science Systems in Sorrento Valley.

"So, we’re working on the support structure for that and making sure analytically that different things are gonna work,” Knutson said.

One of the most exciting pieces of technology on Perseverance is a miniature helicopter, or drone, named Ingenuity that is attached to the belly of the rover.

San Diego-based Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor is being used to power Ingenuity, which will be the first aircraft to take off and land on another planet for aerial surveys.

Knutson said he looks forward to the day Perseverance lands and images start to come back.

"You feel this initial sense of accomplishment when the launch happens, but you’re waiting that whole time and you’re anxious now,” Knutson said.

Perseverance is set to land on February 18, 2021.

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At least two San Diego companies contributed to NASA's latest Mars rover. NBC 7's Audra Stafford shares how.
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