Flex Circuits Visible in Curiosity Rover Photos

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I’d like to offer big kudos to the folks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the continued success of their Mars rover programs. Curiosity has been performing flawlessly since landing in Gale Crater back in August 2012.


Figure 1. Curiosity rover self-portrait. (Images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

As I mentioned in a June 2008 Flex007 article, I had a very small part in creating the flex circuits for Curiosity – creating trace layouts for about a dozen flex circuits and checking Gerber files for most of the flex circuits in the rover. It was great fun to be part of such an ambitious program, but I never got a chance to see the actual flex circuits. What a pleasant surprise to find that the pictures that Curiosity is sending back are so good you can see the flex circuits!


Figure 2. Top image showing flex circuit assemblies on the rover’s mast. Image was created by combining eight different digital pictures.

 In October, the mission used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera mounted on the very end of the robot arm, to capture a set of 55 high-resolution images, which were stitched together to create a high-resolution full-color self-portrait. The resolution is so good you can almost read the silk screen legends on the flex circuits.

Figure 2 is a close-up photo of the mast showing portions of the large flex circuit assemblies that travel through the pivots and connect the cameras and instruments on the mast with the warm electronics box.  

These flex circuit on the mast are not the longest of the flex assemblies – the flex assemblies that run out to the arm are 35 feet long, created by splicing several long flex circuits  together. They obviously work; these high-resolution pictures were transmitted through these 35-foot flex assemblies! 


Figure 3. Image showing the starting point of the robot arm flex circuits and  their transition to wire harnesses.

The same composite self-portrait shows the bracket where the flex circuits from the robot arm plug into wire harnesses that go into the warm electronics box (Figure 3). JPL has a better picture of the robot arm during assembly that shows the flex circuits running from the wire harness transition, along the arm and up to the instruments and camera at the very end of the arm (Figure 4).


Figure 4. A clearer picture, taken during the manufacture of the Curiosity rover, showing flex assemblies.

You can download and closely examine these pictures for yourself from Wikipedia. You can also get more information about the Curiosity flex assemblies at the website of Pioneer Circuits, the Santa Ana, California-based flex manufacturer that built them. More information about Curiosity’s continuing mission can be found at the JPL website

Tom Woznicki is the president  of Flex Circuit Design Co., a consulting company in San Jose, California. Flex Circuit Design Co. specializes in designing flexible printed circuits for OEMs and flex circuit manufacturers. For more information, visit www.flexdude.com.


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