Jet Propulsion Laboratory partnered with professor-student team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to develop microchip for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Rover “Curiosity”.
Professor Ben Blalock and his students Stephen Terry, and Robert Greenwell engineered a tiny microchip for controlling the motors on the rover.
Around 40 motors of the rover were driven by 80 of the newly-designed Quad Operational Amplifier (op amp) microchips, through which the rover navigates the Martian surface. As part of its mission, the rover’s targets include sample collection using robotic arm, or controlling cameras for returning pictures of the Red Planet.
In spite of op amps being widespread in consumer electronics, this analog microchip can uniquely endure 500 days of potential radiation exposure and temperatures ranging from -180°C to +120°C, adequate for -120°C to + 20°C within Martian surface. The chips were subjected to stringent testing for functioning in thermal ovens.
Based on these chips, more electronic systems were deployed on Curiosity’s exterior, which aided in reducing cabling and also helped in accommodating scientific instrumentation. NASA's scientists got more data about the Red Planet. JPL designers operated in lock-step with Blalock's research team, resulting in success for Curiosity.
This mission also included the efforts of Professors Linda Kah and Jeffrey Moersch of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The Curiosity was set-off on November 26, 2011, and successfully landed on Mars on 6 August.