From manufacturing on earth to searching for life on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover uses product made at Kennametal’s Langford site.

When NASA’s six-wheeled Perseverance rover touched down on the red soil of Mars, ground control teams in California leapt to their feet in unbridled enthusiasm. But they weren’t the only ones bursting with joy.

North of the border on Vancouver Island, Canada a team of mechanical engineers and metal workers were overwhelmed with their work landing on the red planet.

“A lot of the guys were watching the landing on their computers as it came down, going through the countdown. So, there was a lot of excitement,” said Ron Sivorot, Kennametal Inc. Langford Site business director.

Inside Kennametal Inc. in Greater Victoria, teams of metal workers and mechanical engineers design a variety of custom products for businesses around the world. However, this was the first time a partnership had taken the Vancouver Island business into orbit.

In 2014 the company began a partnership with NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory to help design and build a drill bit capable of tearing into the harsh and unknown soil of Mars.

“We specifically made a tooth blank for a core bit drill,” said Sivorot. “So basically, that is the business end of the drill that basically drills into Mars. The company has a specific skillset with the material tungsten carbide. It’s an incredibly hard metal known for its use in harsh climates.”

Staff at the Langford operation helped create a blank drill bit tip which NASA then put the final touches on before mounting to the car-sized rover. Perseverance touched down in dramatic fashion on Mars last week and almost immediately began its work of taking core samples. NASA hopes that drilling into the ground of Mars could uncover galactic mysteries about the planet and possibly uncover life on another planet.

Commander Chris Hadfield is no stranger to Canadian contributions to space exploration. The Toronto-based astronaut was the first Canadian to walk in space and has served as the commander of the International Space Station. He says each time Canada is represented in the cosmos, it dares us all to dream bigger.

“There is a great sense of contributing to something important that is bigger than yourself,” said Col. Hadfield from his Toronto home.

“For the folks at Kennametal, they are doing a great job, they make a great product. Their tungsten carbide is twice as hard as steel, but that little thing they work on, that they take daily pride in, is now right on the very forward edge of human exploration,” he said.

Over the next two years, the rover will use its two metre arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship. The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.

For more information contact Kennametal South Africa on TEL: 011 748 9300 or visit www.kennametal.com