Monday, 11 June 2018 05:32

Swift Current company provides protective material for NASA's latest Mars mission

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Two technicians lower the wind and thermal shield on the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) seismometer at CNES during tests. The scale and chain mail are visible as part of the gold-coated thermal skirt on the aerodynamically shaped aluminium cover. Two technicians lower the wind and thermal shield on the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) seismometer at CNES during tests. The scale and chain mail are visible as part of the gold-coated thermal skirt on the aerodynamically shaped aluminium cover. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP

Soldiers of the ancient Rome Empire were wearing chain mail armour when they conquered large swathes of Europe and North Africa over 2,000 years ago. Now titanium chain mail that was manufactured by MailleTec Industries in Swift Current is speeding through space towards Mars on board NASA's InSight lander.


“The cool angle for all of us here is that chain mail is a two or three thousand year old technology,” MailleTec managing partner Mason Chant said. “It's ancient. The Romans were wandering across the known world wearing chain mail and spreading that technology around, and worshipping Mars, the god of war, and now we're sending stuff to actual Mars. So I guess we're sending our chain mail home.”
The InSight lander was launched on May 5 and is scheduled to land on the red planet on Nov. 26. The titanium chain mail will protect sensitive equipment that will be deployed on the planet's surface.
“It will be an environmental shield,” he explained. “It is there to block wind and particulate matter from really sensitive seismic measurement devices.”
The goal of NASA's InSight mission is to take the exploration of Mars a step further by probing the planet's deep interior structure. The purpose of the mission is clear from its name. InSight is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.
Previous missions to Mars investigated the surface history of the planet, but this time the lander will use advanced instruments to look into the planet's core.
These seismic and other investigations will not only help scientists to learn more about Mars, but to also develop a better understanding of how the Earth and other rocky planets in our inner solar system (Mercury and Venus) were formed.
The InSight lander will operate on the surface of Mars for 720 days, and the chain mail therefore had to comply with very exact specifications to ensure that it will provide the required protection to equipment in that harsh and unforgiven environment.
“It's NASA and it's going off planet, so now you have to be exceptionally careful that every single weld is good,” he said.
There were about 120,000 welds that had to be individually inspected. The main difference between the chain mail used for this project and their more regular work was the use of titanium wire to manufacture the rings.
“For the most part it's all kind of the same,” he said. “We make a lot of chain mail. It's all pretty simple shapes and we're makings guards for a lot of equipment. ... That's our main market and NASA was a pretty close corollary of that. We're still making guarding to go around a machine, it just happens to be going to a completely different atmosphere and gravity, which is pretty cool.”
MailleTec was started in 2010 and it currently employs seven people, including the company owners. It is the only regular chain mail manufacturer in Canada and the only company in the world that produces the scale mail that was used as part of the chain mail shield around the equipment on the Insight lander.
“That's sort of our business model,” he said. “There's not a lot of people in the world that make chain mail to begin with and we tend to do different things with it than most.”
The company has been involved with some interesting projects in the entertainment industry over the years. It provided shirts for dancers in Madonna's halftime show at the Superbowl, while it supplied scale mail and regular chain mail for costumes in the Game of Thrones series as well as blockbuster movies such as The Hobbit and more recently in The Great Wall with Matt Damon in the main role.
MailleTec's collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory started after a telephone call from the space agency.
“They found us on Google,” Chant said. “So apparently we had the right search terms for them.”
He noted that 90 per cent of their business happens that way. The other 10 per cent is through word of mouth.
“Most of what we did is people find us on the internet and we ship all over the planet,” he said. “We have regular customers in Australia, two or three things in Madame Tussauds in London, and 90 per cent of our business in the U.S. We're truly global as far as where we ship.”
MailleTec's project for NASA started in 2013 and it was already completed in January 2014. The launch date for the InSight mission was originally scheduled for March 2016, but it was postponed due to technical issues with the prime instrument in the science payload.
The staff at MailleTec will continue to keep a close watch on the progress of the InSight mission to Mars. For Chant this project will always have some special meaning beyond all the other interesting projects that his company is involved with.
“When my kids are older, I'll be able to point up at Mars and tell them that MailleTec put up stuff there, which is surreal,” he said. “It's baffling to me that you look up at that your whole life and it's still far away, but now it's something that I cannot literally reach out and touch, but in a very figurative sense there's only one degree of separation from Mars. ... We feel pretty lucky and really excited to be a part of it.”
Note: Additional information for this story was obtained from the NASA Mars InSight Mission website . For more details about the mission, go to: https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/

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Matthew Liebenberg

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