Thanks to a little help from UCSB, NASA’s Spirit rover made it to the surface of Mars in one piece Jan. 3.

A team of UCSB researchers tested ceramic composite materials that form the rover’s hi-tech heat shields for NASA. The shields contributed to the safe landing of the Mars rover. Fred Milstein, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials, and a group of six researchers played an important role in meeting NASA’s strict requirements.

NASA’s thermal protection department specializes in developing methods needed to understand the mechanical properties of exotic materials. In this case, Milstein and his students had to perform extensive experiments to certify the materials for use on the rover.

“They tried to do in-house to certify the materials. They were trying to find industrial labs to do it. They didn’t have the expertise either. We did have the expertise and did the test,” Milstein said.

The material, sent from NASA to UCSB, is called SIRCA (silicone impregnated reusable ceramic ablator). This material is used to shield the Mars rover as part of its thermal protection system. The density of the material is 25 percent that of water. A cube of a fixed volume that would weigh 10 pounds if composed of concrete would only weigh one pound if composed of SIRCA.

SIRCA is made from ceramic fibers and large silica fibers which are embedded into a silicone matrix. The fibers reinforce the silicone and take on a porous structure that makes the material very lightweight. SIRCA has the appearance of a gray pencil eraser.

The material was created at NASA Ames, which specializes in developing thermal protection. SIRCA was developed for the purpose of shielding the Mars rover vehicle.

“Generally when a university does research we take our time; it’s not a high-pressure thing. But we had a NASA quality control engineer down here anxious for results and they were able to use the data we supplied them,” Milstein said.

In exchange for the hard work of Milstein and his team of undergraduate and graduate researchers, UCSB received a grant from NASA for $112,000. A certificate of achievement was given to Milstein for outstanding performance of the success of the Mars rover. The six researchers are receiving a group award from NASA.

Milstein said that they have been working with NASA for five years performing various tasks developing scientific understanding of materials, including the properties of thermal shielding.

Jeffrey Loomis, a fifth-year undergraduate student majoring in mechanical engineering played an important role in aiding NASA. He helped test the SIRCA material in the laboratory, located on the second floor of the Engineering II building. In the machine shop, he collected data about the material with the help of a computer that recorded properties such as strength, stiffness and strain.

“One of the best aspects of research is that undergraduates also play an important role,” Milstein said

Currently, there are not any practical uses for this material in every day life, but Milstein said he predicts that it soon could be used in clothing. Since it is lightweight, the material’s great thermal insulation properties could prove to be useful in fabric.

“It’s really cool when they can send something off and have it land exactly where they want it,” Loomis said.