Bearings in Space: Curiosity Rover’s Mission to Mars


If you know anything about ball bearings you’ll have some idea of how this elegantly simple invention has become a ubiquitous gizmo in manufacturing around the globe, and since the launching of Curiosity Rover on Mars, we can make that the universe. On 6th August 2012, Curiosity Rover, a nifty little robot, was set free on planet Mars to roam the surface for traces of life and investigate Martian climate and geology, and this meant the ball bearings inside Curiosity got to do their thing in outer space. This article will take a brief look at the intricate engineering behind the robot and how the ball-bearing has an absolutely crucial role to play in the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Mission.

Brake System

Timken ball bearings were used in the essential and unique landing system which involved the rover being active when it touched down on the surface; previous Mars rovers only became active after being on the ground for some time. The landing system involved a “sky crane” which lowered Curiosity on a 20 metre tether to a soft landing on the surface within seven seconds. Timken bearing supplier provided needle roller bearings for installation in the SpaceDev descent brake system. This isn’t the first time Timken bearings have travelled to Mars. In previous missions super-precision ball bearings have been used by SpaceDev for various applications during research on Mars.

Other companies who have supplied equipment for Curiosity include Dunmore who supplied wire insulators, Honeybee Robotics and Lockheed Martin who supplied the aeroshell.

Curiosity Rover

The robot itself puts ball bearings to good use in the central hub which uses bearings to rotate allowing various instruments to photograph, scan, monitor, navigate and pick up samples the area around the rover. Small ball bearings are also used in the vacuum pump which supports a lot of the analytical equipment being used.

Curiosity Rover has already supplied us with some breathtaking images of the surface of Mars and over the two year mission will give NASA scientists an unprecedented amount of scientific information about the red planet. It is hoped that mission will not only indicate the potential for the planet to support life, but will also do some groundwork to prepare for human investigation. It’s pretty exciting stuff and all of it would be completely impossible without the humble ball bearing.

+Clive Simkins