California's Aerojet plays key role in Mars rover's mission

The Sacramento BeeAugust 7, 2012 

The thunderous applause Sunday night from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena echoed in the halls of Rancho Cordova's Aerojet, which provided key propulsion components for the super-complex rover landing on the surface of Mars.

Aerojet thrusters guided the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL, to a safe landing on the Red Planet at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time, with the rover Curiosity creeping down to the Martian surface at about 2 mph, coming on the heels of a 13,000 mph blaze through the planet's atmosphere.

Aerojet engines assisted with entry, descent and landing. The company's thrusters also provided control and trajectory correction maneuvers during the MSL's journey to the Red Planet. One aerospace engineer equated the mission to "slowing a bullet down to a stop and putting it nose up on a coffee table."

While pleased, Aerojet took it in stride. After all, this wasn't the local rocket maker's first rodeo.

"Aerojet thrusters brought Viking 1 and 2 and the Phoenix Mars Lander to safe arrivals on Mars, and we were confident that our MSL thrusters would once again help deliver success," said Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet vice president of space and launch systems.

In all, the MSL carried 24 Aerojet thrusters with varying degrees of force. Sixteen of them assisted in the landing near the northern flank of 3-mile-high Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater on Mars.

The three different types of thrusters aboard the MSL were designed and manufactured at Aerojet's Redmond, Wash., facility. Throttling tests were performed at Aerojet's Rancho Cordova facilities.

Aerojet is no stranger to the international spotlight. During the halcyon days of the U.S. manned space program, the sprawling complex along Highway 50 employed more than 20,000 and helped put men on the moon in 1969.

The Mars landing is the latest milestone in a recent resurgence.

Last month, Aerojet parent GenCorp Inc. announced that it was buying rocket-engine maker Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in a $550 million deal that will nearly double GenCorp's business.

The deal isn't expected to add many workers to GenCorp and Aerojet's 1,600-employee Rancho Cordova headquarters, but it is expected to bolster Aerojet's standing in the aerospace and defense industry, which accounted for nearly all of GenCorp's $918 million in revenue last year.

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