The Langford Kennametal Inc. facility is used to making custom products for industry spanning every corner of the globe. However, it’s the piece the plant made for a jobsite that’s currently over 200 million kilometres away that’s bringing the company an out-of-this-world amount of pride.
The site made a tungsten carbide tooth blank that’s currently mounted to a core drill on NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars last month. The blank is involved in one of the six-wheeled rover’s key tasks; cutting chalk-sized, intact rock cores that will hopefully be sent back to Earth and give a greater understanding into ancient microbial life on Mars.
“The team is just super enthusiastic and super excited,” said Ron Sivorot, business director at the Greater Victoria Kennametal site. “Having it in use millions of miles away is actually pretty crazy.”
But even though they’re making a component used in space exploration, nothing really changed at the Langford site. Had nobody told the plant’s employees about the company’s involvement in the mission, they might’ve never known.
“The team on the shop floor didn’t even really know that there was anything going on, that it was anything different from anything else they make,” Sivorot said. “We make millions of pieces of carbide a year and to have these ones go to Mars, it’s obviously, definitely the farthest we’ve gone.”
Excitement started to grow in 2018 after Kennametal found out the blanks —which the Langford site has been supplying to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 2014 —would be aboard the interplanetary mission.
“It just kind of fit right into our work flow, so to be honest, we didn’t go above and beyond, this is basically the service we’re used to giving anyway, it just fit to serve NASA and JPL,” Sivorot said.
The Langford site employees watched from their work computers as the rover touched down on the red planet. Images of NASA’s control room engineers erupting with elation upon the exploratory rover’s interstellar landing matched the scene at the local Kennametal site. Sivorot said some of the plant’s space-loving employees were caught geeking out with celebratory air punches as they watched the landing back here on Earth.
The k92-grade tooth blank Kennametal makes for NASA looks like a small metal cube that’s smaller than a fingernail. To make the blank, Kennametal reforms powdered tungsten carbide by pressing, shaping and centring it and giving the piece a semi-finished grind. Once NASA gets the blank, they finish grinding the piece to their specific and high-tech requirements.
The k92-grade tooth blank is also used in industries like construction, oil and gas, agriculture and forestry. The Kennametal director said tungsten carbide is used because its strength and durability can perform in hostile scenarios.
“We have a variety of other customers that use it in similar applications, other than being on another planet,” Sivorot said. “We have a lot of confidence in this grade. It’s a very tough grade, fracture resistant, wear resistant, it’s an ideal grade for this solution, so we’re confident that it’ll do what it needs to do on Mars.”
NASA says Mars was 205 million kilometres from Earth when Perseverance landed, but the rover equipped with the Kennametal product travelled 471 million kilometres in total since last summer’s launch.
“Which is super wild,” Sivorot said, “it’s actually one of those fun stories you go home and tell your kids about.”