The blue-and-white flag on the ‘red planet’

Siemens’ center for ‘product lifecycle management software’ in Israel played a key role in ensuring the Curiosity rover can do its job on Mars

Model of the Curiosity rover (Photo credit: Courtesy JPL)
Model of the Curiosity rover (Photo credit: Courtesy JPL)

Israel has yet to land an astronaut on the moon, but as of this week, there is an Israeli “flag” on Mars — because Israeli software was crucial to the development of the Curiosity rover now exploring the possibility of life on the red planet.

Curiosity is the main feature of the $2.5 billion Mars Science Lab mission. The technology and sophisticated parts that make up the rover are mainly made by American computer and aerospace companies such as Intel, Lockheed Martin, and Alliant Techsystems. But the software that allowed NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) to accurately model how the Mars vehicle would perform tens of millions of miles from earth is “blue and white,” developed at the Israeli branch of Siemens PLM.

No one has ever been to Mars, of course, and there have been precious few successful space missions to the planet, which have provided all the information available to date. The rover’s mission is to constantly send photos and data back to earth for at least two years.

Enter PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software, used by companies to determine how their designs and products will stand up under real-life conditions. PLM software is used in just about every manufacturing industry, and Siemens, one of the biggest providers of the software, does all its PLM work in Israel, said the company’s Israeli CEO Zvi Feuer. “We develop PLM solutions for many of the largest companies around the world. In Israel, for example, with our partner Mckit Software, we develop PLM solutions for companies like Elta, Israel Aircraft Industries, the IDF, Keter Plastics, and many more.”

One of Siemens’ international customers is JPL, which is running the Mars Science Lab mission. Siemens PLM Israel helped develop the system needed to figure out how to ensure that Curiosity could stand up to the harsh conditions on Mars and continue operating in the face of the wind and dust, which appear to be a major feature of the martian atmosphere.

“The manufacturing process generally starts with a CAD (computer-aided design) rendering of the product –- in this case the rover – and usually goes on to schematics and the building of a model,” Feuer told the Times of Israel. The model is tested using PLM software, and adjustments are made in the design and manufacturing process to ensure the best results. In this case, because of the prohibitive cost of building numerous models, JPL initially developed computer simulations for testing with PLM software, and only later built an actual model.

The PLM software checked out all relevant systems on the Curiosity, said Feuer, including the robotic arm that digs, scoops, tests, and stores samples of soil and rocks. “We’ve all seen videos of this arm, and it is very complicated, with many moving parts. The arm shows just how important PLM software is –- the design was very complicated and the action is very sophisticated, meaning there is a greater chance of glitches. But we cannot afford any problems, because that would be the end of the rover. You have to check anything and everything that could go wrong.”

Besides the mechanics of the robot arm, added Feuer, his company’s software examined other aspects of the Curiosity, including what weight it could lift, under what environmental conditions it could continue to function, and how its action algorithms work with the manufactured parts.

After months of hard work, Feuer and the team at Siemens PLM Israel were ecstatic to see the first exciting images of Curiosity from Mars this week. “This is one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments,” said Feuer, “and we are honored to have had a part in it.”

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