NASA calls the rock an “ancient relic of our solar system’s early days.”
Scientists believe it could unlock clues to mankind’s origins and that it might even contain organic molecules similar to those that were critical to the development of life on Earth.
Just one problem: Getting there is a 1.4 million-mile journey. One way. Through space. Then there’s the trip home.
Enter EaglePicher Technologies.
Power to reach Bennu — the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid that may hold some answers — is coming from one of Joplin’s oldest and largest employers, EaglePicher.
A NASA-built spacecraft that launched in 2016 — Osiris-REx — reached Bennu last year and almost immediately made a discovery: Bennu contains oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together (called hydroxyls) that, according to NASA, mean “at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.”
Osiris-REx has continued surveying Bennu, getting less than a half-mile from its surface, searching for an ideal sport for what NASA calls a “Touch-And-Go (TAG) Sample Acquisition Mechanism,” meaning a robotic arm will swing out on a closer flyby, grab a sample from the asteroid’s surface, and then return it to Earth in 2023. This summer, four possible sites for the tag were identified, with contact expected next summer. After that, it’s a trip back home, arriving at Earth with a sample in 2023 — seven years after launch.
Silver-zinc batteries built by EaglePicher power the on-board electronics for the launch vehicle. Two of the company’s lithium-ion batteries support ongoing flight and mission operations, including heaters that allow operation in the cold of deep space.
And when it reaches Earth, two more EaglePicher batteries will power the return capsule that will separate from the main craft and enter Earth’s atmosphere with the sample collected from the surface.
“What (the batteries) are doing up there right now kind of blows your mind,” said Rich Hunter, who was named EaglePicher’s CEO this summer, just about the time that Osiris-REx was making those flybys of Bennu, “and it’s made right here in the Joplin area.”
It has been in Earth’s orbit, and well beyond, where Eagle Picher’s products have received the most attention and accolades from the public.
But EaglePicher also supplies power to the majority of U.S. Department of Defense missile and precision-guided munitions systems. It’s also a leader in medical implantable batteries that power everything from pacemakers to neuromodulators that help regulate the body’s nervous system.
“Mission-critical and live-saving devices, that is kind of our core,” Hunter said.
Like many of its batteries, EaglePicher has been on a journey of its own, including new ownership last year and new leadership this past summer.
Steering a company of 821 employees — 683 of them in Joplin, Seneca and Pittsburg, Kansas — Hunter said he will continue the company’s tradition of building mission-critical batteries and other products that will be “smaller, lighter and leaner.”
The company is embracing what’s called The Leaders Strategy, introduced when EaglePicher was acquired by Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR last year. The goal is to tie core areas of the company to knowledgeable leadership groups in order to further overall growth.
Hunter said, “We want to grow. That is my No. 1 goal. That is GTCR’s No. 1 goal. By growing a business, that’s how we achieve the most value.”
He said the the primary areas of EaglePicher’s focus will remain space exploration, defense/military and medical, with all three of those areas taking the company in new directions.
Hunter said the company’s next big focus will be on America’s future exploration of space with crewed vehicles.
“Our batteries will be on Orion,” he said, referring to the spacecraft that will return crews to the moon as part of the planned Artemis missions, and then possibly take them on to Mars.
“Every element of getting man back out into space, we’ll be on some element of the booster, the crew vehicle, satellites that are out there helping out there beforehand,” Hunter said.
None of this is new to EaglePicher, which has powered U.S. spacecraft since 1958, when Explorer 1 became the country’s first satellite in space.
EaglePicher has been on countless missions since — satellites, probes, planetary landers. Its batteries power the Hubble Space Telescope. EaglePicher parts have functioned in the harsh environment of space for 2.7 billion cell hours without a single failure. And that includes batteries used on Space Shuttle missions and the historic Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
But missions such as Apollo in the past and now Orion represent a different challenge, Hunter said, because they carry men and women.
“When you have manned spaceflight and your products are mission-critical and if they fail (there will be) loss of life and loss of vehicle, it takes on a whole new meaning,” he said.
EaglePicher’s batteries also power more than 90% of the U.S. military’s munitions and mission-critical systems, Hunter said. Company batteries power well-known weapons systems such as ship- and submarine-based Tomahawk cruise missiles, the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and the Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance packages strapped to 500-pound bombs.
“We do have a legacy and are a market leader in munition-based missile products,” he said.
One area that’s expanding — Hunter described it as a “large market” — is batteries used in military drones, either UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, or UUVs, which are unmanned underwater vehicles that speed beneath the world’s oceans. The U.S. military uses them extensively, primarily for reconnaissance purposes. According to a 2013 Brookings Institution study, the U.S. military operated 10,600-plus drones of nine different systems; the U.S. Air Force used 1,300 pilots to fly drones, about 8.5% of the branch’s pilot pool.
“With a UAV, it’s an airplane, and at the end of the day, everything is about weight,” Hunter said. “That’s where our technology brings a lot of benefits (to the table) — longer running life, they weigh less and they have more power.”
And because America’s enemies are beginning to embrace and use drone technology — last month, Iran allegedly launched a drone attack on a Saudi Arabia oil field — Hunter said EaglePicher batteries are well-suited to power directed-energy weapons, radiation or laser-based, against enemy drones.
In 2017, EaglePicher was awarded a contract for the battery and charger system for the U.S. Air Force’s SHiELD program, which has successfully used lasers to shoot missiles out of the sky, and last year, it began providing battery systems for the U.S. Navy’s Energy Magazine Laser.
“You read a lot in the news about our enemies, east and west of the United States, flying these drones around,” and with an energy-based weapon, “they kind of make the drones go all crazy. It’s a defensive weapon, it protects our troops,” he said.
Another area where EaglePicher sees potential “big opportunities” is hypersonic weapons, which are glide vehicles or cruise missiles that, at peak speeds, could travel from New York City to Los Angeles in time measured in minutes rather than hours.
Another growing part of EaglePicher’s business lies in energetic devices — explosive or pyrotechnic devices that transform electrical energy into thermal energy. Think of exploding detonators that blow off a military jet’s protective canopy prior to ejection, detonators or boosters, fuzes in mortar or cannon devices, or using minute explosives to provide a single motion or to ignite a material. The company’s energetic products are made at its Seneca plant.
“It better work the first time every time and it has to be very, very safe,” said Hunter, who previously served as president of L3 Technologies-Defense Electronic Systems division. He has more than 20 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industries, including more than a decade in senior leadership roles covering fuzing and ordnance.
“It’s a growing part of our business,” he said, adding: “It’s pretty incredible what we’re doing out there (in Seneca).
“There’s only a few players in the Untied States that can land that market and nobody has really tried to be No. 1, so I think we can do so.”
The same requirements for batteries in space and defense — lightweight, 100% reliability — have made EaglePicher a key player in batteries that power medical devices implanted in patients, including pacemakers, cardiac monitors, neuromodulators and hearing devices.
The first human implantable lithium-ion battery and the industry’s smallest implantable medical battery were both made at the company’s Vancouver operations.
“Anything to do with the cardiac and the heart we have batteries there; neurostimulation is another one, with our implantable batteries. Those are two of our core markets right now,” Hunter said.
“We’re still committed to medical, we brought in our senior vice president, Chris Huntington, to lead our medical (division). He has a lot of experience there in the medical field, so now we have someone who’s focused on it, committed to it, in an area that has a lot of growth opportunities,” he said.
One of those opportunities has to do with pain management that could reduce the use of opioids.
While some production of medical batteries occurs in Joplin now, Hunter said that it will likely be moved to Vancouver in the future, with other space and defense work being brought to Joplin.
One other area with potential would be improving current battery technology, said Hunter.
Although EaglePicher batteries operate with a number of different battery chemistries, he said, “Lithium-ion is still the heart and soul of battery technology.”
They are looking at making it safer, with additives that reduce the risk of fire without sacrificing the qualities that make lithium-ion desirable for uses in everything from cars to spaceflight.
Looking over the list of possible directions the company may travel in the future, Hunter said with a chuckle: “This is all science-fiction type stuff, but I will tell you, the (Osiris-REx mission to the asteroid)? You would have thought that was science-fiction too just 20 years ago.”