Mission from Mars Pittsburgh: The Search for Life

Updated October 12, 2022

Imagine a piece of metal about the size of a Tic Tac. Now, picture that piece of metal with the power to help change how we, and generations to come, think about the universe—and even life itself. Well, as of February 2021, it’s reality, not imagination. And the roots of that innovation are right here, a true mission from Mars in Pittsburgh. 

When NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars last year, it brought Kennametal materials and manufacturing innovation with it – in the form of tungsten carbide materials with the strength and durability to help NASA mine Martian soil for answers to one of mankind’s most intriguing questions: Was there ever life on the Red Planet?  

Perseverance: NASA’s Newest Mars Rover

Maybe you grew up obsessed with bad sci-fi movies about invasions of little green men. Or maybe, like me, you’ve watched nearly every Hollywood movie ever made about real-life space missions. Either way, space exploration—and the possibility of life on other planets—has long captured the imaginations of many of us. 

NASA’s InSight lander brought the first seismometer to Mars and has been functioning on the Red Planet since November 2018. It was the first robotic explorer to make a detailed study of the Martian inner space—crust, mantle, and core. Similarly, through various other expeditions involving landers and rovers, it was found that liquid water did exist on Mars’s surface once and that the planet could have supported life nearly 4 billion years ago. Now, Perseverance will directly look for signs of past life. 

Mission from Mars Pittsburgh contributed to the Perseverance robot
The robotic arm of NASA’s Perseverance from the surface of Mars.

Perseverance: Design & Instruments

While you are reading this, Kennametal’s tungsten carbide material is working hard in the Martian soil, helping scientists drill and explore the landscape as part of NASA’s ninth mission from Mars. Of course, NASA is not searching for little green men but rather far simpler life forms.  

Perseverance is equipped with a drill for coring samples from Martian rocks and soil to be analyzed for signs of past microbial life. The drill bit is equipped with tips ground from blanks of Kennametal’s proprietary K92 grade tungsten carbide—a material twice as strong as steel and originally developed at the Kennametal Technology Center in Latrobe, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. 

Kennametal Technology Center in Latrobe, Westmoreland County
Kennametal Technology Center in Latrobe, Westmoreland County

From Manufacturing on Earth to Searching for Life on Mars

Kennametal’s journey from Earth to Mars began in 2014 when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a longtime customer of our metal-cutting tools, turned to us for a high-strength drilling solution. Little did we know that our product would someday take a seven-month ride through space with Perseverance on a mission to Mars and make the latest news headlines.   

What we did know was that our materials can stand up to the toughest jobs on Earth, like oil and gas and hard rock mining. And we believed our materials could handle anything NASA had to dish out. Our confidence proved warranted when we received submissions from NASA’s JPL, which finishes our blanks to its final specifications for the drill bit, for a series of orders that initially supported various testing phases of the rover development and, finally, the long-awaited mission for Mars itself.  

Scene Inside the Kennametal Technology Center
Inside the Kennametal Technology Center

Nearly a decade in the making, NASA’s Perseverance mission to Mars is built on a long history of innovation in space exploration. Similarly, our tungsten carbide material submissions for Perseverance are built on a long history of Kennametal innovation in materials and manufacturing. 

More than 80 years ago, metallurgist Philip M. McKenna created a tungsten-titanium carbide alloy for cutting tools that provided breakthrough productivity in the machining of steel. Kennametal tools cut faster and lasted longer, facilitating metalworking in products ranging from automobiles to airliners to machinery. With his invention, Philip started the McKenna Metals Company in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Later renamed Kennametal, we are now headquartered in the downtown Pittsburgh area and maintain our corporate campus and technology center in Latrobe. Today, we are a global leader in materials and tools for the metalworking and infrastructure industries, supplying products that help power real estate projects and build everything from the cars that take us across town to the planes that take us around the world—as well as the roads, bridges, and runways those vehicles travel.    

In addition to the landing of Perseverance on Mars, it so happens that February 2021 marked my one-year anniversary with Kennametal. Let me tell you—I’ve never had a professional anniversary as satisfying as watching Perseverance touch down on Mars and knowing that my new team had a hand in making it happen. I know I speak for all of us at Kennametal—here in western Pennsylvania, at our facility in Victoria, British Columbia, where we manufacture the blanks and around our global facilities—when I say we feel both great pride and great responsibility to be part of this historic mission to Mars.   

Franklin Cardenas, VP of Kennametal Inc. and President, Infrastructure Segment
Franklin Cardenas, VP of Kennametal Inc. and President, Infrastructure Segment

The Perseverance mission is going to weave what once existed only in our imagination into the fabric of our everyday lives for one Martian year (687 days). With a few months left, we’ll continue to follow Perseverance on social media, notifications alerting us of the newest photos and videos of the Martian landscape. School districts across the region will learn about the Pittsburgh Mission from Mars in school. We’ll talk about the latest news (have you heard the audio of Martian wind?) over dinner.   

And Kennametal will be right here in the Pittsburgh area—living out our vision of transforming how everyday life is built—by continuing to advance the materials and manufacturing expertise that solves the world’s toughest problems and brings “what’s next” within our reach today.