Outer Space Here On Earth
Sandusky, Ohio, isn't a place you would normally associate with missions to Mars.
Yet here, just a few miles south of town off Highway 250, critical testing for the Mars Exploration Rover missions took place before the spacecraft even left the Earth.
Inside the Space Power Facility's Assembly Area; in the background, hardware is prepared for a simulated space enviornment in the Test Chamber.
The Space Power Facility, or SPF, is the world's largest space environment chamber. This is where NASA scientists brought their airbag landing system before sending Spirit and Opportunity to Mars in 2003.
At 122 feet tall by 100 feet wide, the SPF's aluminum dome is shrouded in 6 feet of concrete to create an environment as close as possible to space without actually going there.
Inside, conditions can be brought to brutal extremes: -320 degrees Fahrenheit, a high vacuum, and a 4-Megawatt heat lamp array to simulate solar radiation. A harsh enviornment, but if your hardware is going to survive space, it has to withstand these punishing conditions.
On either side of the test chamber are experiment assembly areas, with 20-ton cranes to maneuver hefty space hardware before testing. Railroad tracks built into the floor move assembled experiments into the test chamber with relative ease. Once inside, data from the experiment can be monitored in real-time by researchers in the control room.
Workers prepare the Mars Exploration Rover airbag system for testing at the Space Power Facility. The system performed flawlessly during the landings of Spirit and Opportunity in January of 2004.
The facility was built in 1969 and has helped test equipment ranging from Skylab, the first Space Station in orbit, to today's International Space Station.
The Space Power Facility is part of Plum Brook Station, a 6,500-acre test facility operated by NASA's Glenn Research Center.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center and Glenn Research Center