Applying Lessons from the Curiosity Rover to Aquion Batteries
Prior to founding Aquion Energy, CTO Jay Whitacre worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the team designing the battery system for the Curiosity Rover. A few days prior to Curiosity landing on Mars, Jay spoke about what he learned from working on the rover and how he applied those lessons to Aquion. Below is video of Jay’s talk followed by our 5 key takeaways. Before watching the clip, it’s helpful to watch the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video on the JPL website for background on the Curiosity descent.
- The batteries you need to go to Mars are not the ones we need here on Earth.
At Aquion, we’re designing batteries that are safe, long lasting, and environmentally friendly, which meet the needs of stationary applications. The same is not true for the thermal batteries used for the rover descent. Those batteries operate only once. They’re inactive until small, internal “grenade” is detonated to generate the necessary heat to melt the electrodes and start the battery. They can last for approximately an hour, long enough to bring the rover to the ground.
- When large groups work in parallel, small decisions can have wide ramifications.
To deliver a product in a complex engineering setting, one method is to work in series: one group completes their task and passes their results to the next group. A faster process is to work on several projects simultaneously; for example, designing a product, developing the manufacturing processes, and building a plant. A result of this approach, as Jay observed at both JPL and Aquion, is that when one group makes a small change, the ramifications extend almost immediately throughout the entire organization. Communication and teamwork are crucial.
- You need to know the requirements to deliver the right solution.
Whether listening to customers or studying every aspect of a seven-minute descent through the martian atmosphere, knowing the requirements is key. Developing a single document detailing these requirements ensures the needs of the landing or the voice of the customer are reflected throughout each component of the product.
- Quality is key, but it can cost you.
When sending an advanced piece of technology the size of a mini cooper 350 million miles to the surface of a foreign planet, quality is key. Every component must be designed to minimize any likelihood of failure. Though a “one-in-a-million” chance of failure may seem low for an individual component, with tens of thousands of potential points of failure, a “one in a million chance” suddenly equates to certain doom. Though Aquion is not sending batteries to Mars, quality is still of critical importance, especially when designing a MW-scale system made of thousands of individual batteries.
- Publicity is important, even for NASA.
Success is vital, but making sure people hear about your successes is important, too. For NASA, attracting more public attention increases the likelihood of future missions. For a company, publicity proves to current and potential customers that you not only say what you do, but do what you say and deliver on commitments.