Spaceflight Now Home


Sign up for our NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed direct to your desktop.

Enter your e-mail address:

Privacy note: your e-mail address will not be used for any other purpose.

Fudged titanium could threaten next Mars rover

Posted: October 20, 2009

Bookmark and Share

An industry-wide concern over bad titanium could add more cost to the already over-budget $2.3 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission because engineers need to check the integrity of the metal used in the structure of the spacecraft, NASA officials told an agency advisory committee.

Artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, rover. Credit: NASA
"Everybody thought we were buying a (military) standard titanium that was properly treated for use. It turns out it wasn't worked properly," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars exploration program.

The extent of the titanium inside the MSL spacecraft, also named Curiosity, is still unclear, but McCuistion said officials are taking inventory of parts to determine where the allegedly counterfeit titanium is located.

The titanium was provided by Western Titanium Inc., a San Diego-based company that provides metals for military and space applications.

Metal believed to on MSL is apparently "improperly treated non-conforming titanium," McCuistion told the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council.

Most of the spacecraft is built with titanium components, according to McCuistion, and officials will have to spend the next one or two months tracking down what pieces are from the non-conforming lots.

Engineers already know an outlet elbow in a fuel tank and parts of a pressurant tank are made from the suspect titanium, but the problem could be much more widespread.

"We have to do some testing to determine what the risk of this material not being conforming is, whether it can still handle the pressures and the temperatures, whether is has the lifetime characteristics, whether it has the strength," McCuistion said.

Western Titanium and four executives were indicted last December under eight counts of fraud involving aircraft or space vehicle parts and conspiracy to commit fraud, according to the local U.S. attorney's office.

The indictment alleges the company and its managers issued false certifications claiming the titanium met stringent requirements specified by the government and contractors.

The suspect titanium was traced to Air Force F-15 and F-22 fighter jets and the C-17 cargo plane, in addition to NASA's Kepler telescope launched in March.

NASA officials found the titanium on Kepler met performance specifications and allowed the mission to launch as scheduled.

But extensive testing will be required to verify titanium on MSL can withstand the loads it will experience during its mission. If the titanium is found to be unusable, ordering new parts could threaten the mission's budget and schedule.

"This is being worked extremely hard because if we have significant pieces of equipment to replace and remanufacture, we need to find out if we have the time to do that or not," McCuistion said.

Engineers may not finish testing on MSL's titanium until the the middle of next year, leaving little time to replace the metal if it does not meet specifications.

"Western Titanium is one of the few providers of this material, so we know that we know that the majority of the titanium in the system comes from them, it's just is the majority of the titanium of the lots that were non-conforming and apparently falsified. That's what we don't know," McCuistion said.

"The second step would be, OK, in those, which ones are carrying loads, which ones are not, which ones are critical applications, and then try to test that titanium to understand what it's characteristics are and whether it's usable in that application or not."

Only then will officials know whether the titanium can fly with no changes.

"Just to be clear, the titanium could end up being a situation where we test the materials, we understand what they are and what the limitations of it are, and it's all used as is. That would be our best case," McCuistion said. "But right now the threat is there and it's a legal action as well, which makes it very uncomfortable."

Jim Green, the director of NASA's planetary science division, said the project needs additional money over the $400 million extra awarded earlier this year for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

In addition to the $400 million, about $32 million more has already been given to the mission, but up to $115 million in a second round of unexpected funding could be necessary over the next two years.

And that's before accounting for the titanium, which is not currently quantifiable, officials said.

"We can accommodate additional funding beyond the $32 million up to a certain point before we have to consider delaying other missions, or cancellations, or other activities as we have talked about in the past," Green said.

NASA was able to shift funding to cover MSL's previous overrun by eliminating a technology development program for a Mars sample return mission and reducing money for a Mars lander in 2016.

Officials did not have to cancel or delay any approved missions to give MSL the extra money earlier this year, but more overruns could force NASA to cut funding from missions under full development.

"That number is a few tens of millions beyond the $32 (million), so if we get well into the upper range, then we will definitely have a difficult time accommodating the increase in costs," Green said.

During a review earlier this month, senior agency managers approved plans to continue the mission. More meetings in November and January will hopefully produce more meaningful cost estimates, officials said.

McCuistion said a recent project management shake-up has proven useful. Peter Theisinger, former leader of the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, replaced Richard Cook as MSL's project manager this summer.

"I think they're a much more disciplined, much more focused team than they were before. They've got a very strong systems engineering component to them that they didn't have before," McCuistion said.

Other issues driving the rising cost include trouble with pumps inside the Curiosity rover's sample analysis instrument and an investigation into a hard failure of a gearbox during testing.

Testing of actuators and avionics that caused the delay of MSL's launch until 2011 is also continuing, McCuistion said.

NASA has received enough actuators to launch the mission, but teams are still struggling with the motors after one unit caused the gearbox failure.

McCuistion and Green were confident MSL's other technical challenges could be resolved before its launch in the fall of 2011.

"The titanium one is the only one that makes me a little nervous right now," McCuistion said.