BIDDEFORD — Not only is it a small world; it’s even a small universe. Early Monday, NASA’s Mars Space Laboratory landed the unmanned rover “Curiosity” on Mars, and it was a company in Biddeford that helped make that landing possible.

The Biddeford-based Fiber Materials Inc., which manufactures highly engineered advanced carbon composites for the aerospace and defense industries and high temperature insulation for industrial use, put its expertise to use for Curiosity’s mission.

The company, now part of GrafTech International, headquartered in Parma, Ohio, built part of the heat shield for the rover that helped it survive the brutal heat and friction generated during its descent through the Martian atmosphere before it touched down.

“FMI manufactured the important thermal protection material that was used on the heat shield,” stated Craig Shular, chairman and CEO of GrafTech, in an email. “The system is made out of a proprietary carbon composite material developed by the team at our Biddeford, Maine facility.”

Shular said the diameter of the heat shield was nearly 15 feet ”“ the largest ever built for a planetary mission.

“It was predicted that the heat shield could have experienced temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat shield will remain on the surface of Mars forever,” he said. “Everyone is excited and thrilled to have been part of this project.”

Before its descent onto the red planet, Curiosity flew to Mars aboard an Atlas V rocket. It began its 350-million-mile flight in November.

The rover landed in the Gale Crater. While on the planet, Curiosity will look for any signs of whether microbial life was or is possible on Mars.

Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems built the Mars Science Laboratory aeroshell’s heat shield and back shell, according to GrafTech. The aeroshell is also the largest one ever built for a planetary mission, and incorporates major innovations in both guided entry control and in thermal protection material.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. is managing Curiosity’s mission.

— Staff Writer Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 324 or [email protected].

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