Robotic explorers being prepared for Nasa's next mission to Mars will be powered by Swiss-built motors.
Maxon motor, based in Sachseln near Lucerne, is providing 39 miniature motors for two new Mars rovers, which will be sent to the Red planet in 2003.
The motors, which are just 20 millimetres in diameter, have a long life expectancy and are designed to withstand the extreme temperatures they will encounter on Mars.
"We build motors which are very light, can withstand extremes and are very efficient," Chief Executive Jürgen Meyer told swissinfo.
"They are twice as efficient as a normal motor. They will be able to cope with the temperatures which can be as low as minus 100 degrees Celsius."
Maxon has been collaborating with the Mars missions since 1992 when Nasa asked the company to supply motors for the Sojourner mission. Eleven Maxon motors were used in the 1997 Sojourner rover. The new rovers are larger and will have 39 motors, each costing about SFr200 ($118).
"We've modified one motor which was already in the programme and also built a completely new one," said Meyer.
The new rovers will have far greater mobility than their 1997 predecessor and will be able to travel about 100 metres each Martian day (which is 41 minutes longer than an Earth day).
Each robot will carry a sophisticated set of instruments, which will analyse rocks and soil to explore Mars' climate history and search for signs of water and life. Surface operations will continue for at least 90 Martian days.
The machines will be identical to each other but will land on different regions of Mars. To make a safe landing, a supersonic parachute will slow their descent. Then airbags will inflate around the craft at about 300 metres above the Martian surface.
The first Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft is scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in June 2003. It will enter the Martian atmosphere in January 2004. The second craft will soon follow.
Over the years, Maxon has supplied about 3,000 motors for a variety of Nasa projects.
Maxon builds micro-motors between six and 90 millimetres in diameter for a wide range of high tech and high precision products. The company, founded in 1961, has 1,200 employees in Switzerland and abroad.
by Vincent Landon