At first glance, the fascination with Mars and a planned life on the Red Planet is difficult to understand, especially since the requirements for this are anything but humane. Hardly any protection from cosmic rays, icy temperatures, little oxygen and even less water, at least in liquid form. Nevertheless, the dream of a settlement lives on – and right in the middle is a Swiss model company: the Maxon Group.
Humans have been researching for decades that the vision of a Mars settlement is not just a utopia. Dozens of space probes have been sent to the Red Planet since the 1960s, and the first successful landings took place just a few years later. But the Mars missions really took off in the 1990s – in the truest sense of the word. On July 4, 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder probe landed on the surface of Mars: the small Rover Sojourner, which weighs just 11 kilograms. This traversed the rusty-sandy iron oxide surface for almost three months, took pictures of the red planet and examined rock samples. The six-wheeled vehicle was powered by state-of-the-art Swiss technology: 11 DC motors from the drive specialist Maxon provided the drive and steering as well as the operation of the scientific equipment.
The recipe for success
The foundation stone for the now famous DC drives with an ironless rotor and diamond-shaped winding from Maxon was laid decades earlier. As early as the 1960s, Maxon (then still Interelectric AG) set up its own development department for electromechanical devices. This step turned out to be a stroke of luck for the Sachsler, as they soon had to give up their original business, namely the production of shaving foils for electric shavers. The inventors at Maxon managed to develop a whole range of small motors in record time, and at the same time patented their most important invention in the entire company history: the manufacturing process for the ironless rotor with the patented diamond-shaped winding. The lack of said iron in the rotor increased the efficiency by almost double compared to conventional DC motors, making the small drives powerful and low-inertia compact wonders.
The double charge
From contemplative Sachseln back to Mars. The successful Pathfinder mission not only fascinated the whole world, it also made the small Maxon drives world famous. The arduous journey to Mars puts enormous strain on technical components. They have to defy massive temperature fluctuations, strong cosmic radiation and gigantic dust storms and function perfectly – and that is what the drives from the 5000-soul community did.
But the successful mission is not the only cause for cheers in Sachseln. The American space agency NASA was also enthusiastic about the success of the mission and soon planned the next trip to the Red Planet. This time two rovers should be sent up into the rusty desert: the same-type vehicles Spirit and Opportunity. True to the Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger”, these were hardly comparable to the Sojourner rover. More sophisticated technology allowed the 185-kilogram twin vehicles to take sharper photos than their predecessor, brushing the floor to look for traces, and even drilling whole stones. The mission: to look for water and possibly life on Mars. In January 2004, the two vehicles successfully landed on the planet. On board of every rover: 35 DC motors from Central Switzerland.
The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission exceeded all expectations. Designed for three months, Spirit successfully served for six years. His brother Opportunity withstood all weather, sandstorms and temperature fluctuations from -120 to 25 degrees even better and was active for almost 15 years. He covered a distance of over 45 kilometers in the dust desert. Maxon had a very large share in the success. The Swiss precision motors were responsible for practically all the important functions, including the drive, the control, the rock drill, the robot arm and the cameras. In addition, eight drives were used in the landing units.
The MER mission was considered a complete success, and not just because the rovers had been in operation for decades. For the first time in history, evidence has been provided that liquid water resources existed on Mars, a fundamental prerequisite for possible life on the Red Planet.
The search for ice cream
To date, no water has been found on Mars in liquid form, but there are numerous locations of ice. This is not surprising, since the average temperature on the Red Planet is -55 degrees. However, since the atmosphere can only store a little heat from the sun, the daily temperature differences are enormous. Fluctuations of 100 degrees are not uncommon.
On May 25, 2008, NASA sent the fixed Phoenix probe to Mars to search for frozen water. There she took rock samples with a robot arm and analyzed them. The precision drives from Maxon were also on board again, more specifically ten brushed DC motors of the type RE 25 with special ball bearings, which were responsible for the alignment of the solar panels and the robot arm.
The success story continues
The search for life on the Red Planet not only spurred Maxon engineers to peak performance. NASA was already planning the next Mars mission with a rover that was to outshine all previous models. Curiosity was a largely autonomous vehicle that was equipped with ten instruments for the study of atmosphere, radiation and rock. With dimensions of 3.1 x 2.7 x 2.1 meters and a weight of almost one ton, the rover was a real monster compared to its predecessors. After a powerful Atlas V launcher safely brought Curiosity towards Mars, it landed successfully on August 6, 2012 and began sending the first, crisp images to Earth shortly afterwards. In contrast to the previous Mars missions, Maxon was only involved in a small, albeit very important, part. The company supplied high-precision MR encoders, which were attached to the drive axles and responsible for controlling the motors. They still do their job reliably like a Swiss watch. Curiosity is still on the road in 2020 and is busy collecting data. The rover has discovered elements such as hydrogen, oxygen and carbon over the years. A strong indication that at least earlier the conditions for life on today’s rust planet were met.
Also in the NASA InSight probe, which landed on Mars in late 2018, drives made of Sachseln were installed. Several RE25 motors (types of this model were already mounted on the Spirit and Opportunity twin rovers) and a DCX 22 were used for the probe.
The Martian monopoly
Maxon can now almost claim to have a monopoly on Mars propulsion systems. Without the Central Swiss, little is going on on the Red Planet. There is practically no more effective confirmation that the brushed and brushless DC motors work even under the toughest space conditions. It is therefore not surprising that the Sachsler are allowed to be partners again on two upcoming Mars projects.
Under the name ExoMars, the European space agency ESA is planning a mission to the Red Planet together with the Russian Roscosmos. The goal: the search for past or current life. The European rover will even take soil samples from around two meters deep and analyze them on site. The starting shot is expected in 2022. Maxon is here with more than 50 actuators, from wheel drive to sample distribution to camera movement, in 17 different configurations made of brushless or brushless DC motors in combination with gears, brakes and encoders.
NASA is moving a little faster. The Mars 2020 mission will start this year with the Rover Perseverance. The goal of course leads in the same direction as the ESA mission: Using soil samples that are brought back to Earth, the Americans want to find out whether there has ever been life on Mars. The Swiss drive specialists supply ten brushless DC motors (EC 32 flat and EC 20 flat) including planetary gears. On board the
Atlas V rocket will also be a kind of helicopter drone. This is said to take several autonomous flights of around 1.5 minutes, taking aerial photos of Mars for the first time. And who will control the mini helicopter? Maxon’s engines, of course.
The Swiss cutting edge technology
With every successful mission we learn more about Mars and come a little closer to the dream of colonizing Mars. It will be a while before the first manned mission to the Red Planet. NASA specifies the time window with 2030 at the earliest. Elon Musk, a multi-billionaire and owner of the private space company SpaceX, wants to start in 2025. But one thing seems to be clear now. Mars missions without top technology from Sachseln are difficult