Warren County company plays big part in Mars Rover landing

The NASA Perseverance rover, in powered descent. NASA image
The NASA Perseverance rover, in powered descent. NASA image

As NASA put its newest rover on Mars Thursday, a Warren County company celebrated its dual roles in the endeavor — crucial avionics in the launch vehicle and technology that helps keep the new rover connected to Earth.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance what NASA calls its “quest to explore the past habitability of Mars.”

Technology created by L3Harris in Mason will help NASA receive key data and images from the rover.

ExploreNASA rover lands on Mars to look for signs of ancient life

About half of L3′s nearly 800 Mason employees were directly or indirectly involved with the mission. Many of them will be gathered around monitors and TVs this afternoon to watch a JPL broadcast of the landing.

“There’s not a lot of people who know there’s a really significant space company right here in Ohio with a lot of employees, a lot of good high-tech jobs,” Mark Dapore, chief technologist for L3Harris, said in an interview Wednesday.

The company also provided a suite of avionics for United Launch Alliance, the company that launched this mission nearly seven months and 300 million miles ago in an Atlas 5 launch vehicle.

“It is absolutely thrilling for the employees here,” Dapore said. “Everyone here feels a strong sense of ownership in the mission.”

Very few people anywhere can make the claim that they have worked on something that is operating on another planet, he noted.

“The rover will capture and transmit an unprecedented volume and the highest-quality images of the Mars surface via L3Harris’ transceivers to the overhead orbiters,” Sean Stackley, president of Integrated Mission Systems for L3Harris, said.

A NASA image of its latest Mars rover, touching down on the red planet's surface.
A NASA image of its latest Mars rover, touching down on the red planet's surface.

The rover is able to send high-resolution imagery and data to the orbiters in seconds.

L3Harris in Mason provides a critical communication link on the rover and on the overhead orbiters. Anytime anyone on Earth communicates with the rover, L3 technology will play a key role.

The rover mission has another Dayton-area connection. Perseverance will have a generator similar to a generator that has been tested extensively by University of Dayton Research Institute scientist Chad Barklay and UDRI engineer Allan Tolson.

Their research, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, sheds light on the performance of the rover power units under the extreme duress of operating in space and landing on Mars, UDRI said.

“The outcome was highly successful; better than we could have hoped,” Barklay said of the testing of the generators.

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Space missions become something of a tradition for L3Harris.

“This is something we have worked on with NASA and JPL for many years; this is not a new contract,” Penny Bena, who works in Electro Optical Sector Marketing Communications for the company, told this news outlet.

L3Harris has had a role on an historic array of NASA programs, including the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle, International Space Station and previous Mars missions.

“We actually flew on some of the very early launch vehicles before they were even capable of putting satellites in orbit,” Dapore said. “Some of those very first technology demonstrations the United States was going through, when we were essentially racing the Russians to put a satellite in orbit, we were involved all the way back at the very dawn of the space age.”

The company has about 48,000 employees nationally.

Harris Corp. and L3 Technologies Inc. merged in 2019 to create what was then seen as the sixth-largest aerospace and defense contractor, L3Harris Technologies Inc.

The L3Harris predecessor company moved from Evendale to Mason in 1985.

About the NASA mission

Mission Name: Mars 2020

Rover Name: Perseverance

Main Job: Seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth.

Launch: July 30, 2020

Landing: Feb. 18, 2021

Landing Site: Jezero Crater, Mars