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Fabric from N.H. protects Mars craft

NEW IPSWICH, N.H. -- The most-traveled product ever to leave New Hampshire has, scientists hope, completed a second trip from New Ipswich to Mars, and a couple more will be on the way early next year.

The product is a fabric of high-strength Vectran fibers in an incredibly tight weave used by NASA to create giant airbags to protect three craft as they bounce onto the Red Planet, just as the airbags protected the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. It was made by Warwick Mills.

Beagle 2 was to land on Mars on Wednesday, and may have, but officials had been unable to contact it. The NASA Mars rover Spirit is scheduled to land Jan. 4, and its twin, the NASA rover Opportunity, is set to land Jan. 24.

"It's very rewarding while the work is being done, goals are being set, the technical challenges are there . . . but by now, it's old news for us," said Mark Hannigan, vice president of engineering and sales for Warwick Mills.

The 115-year-old company employs about 70 people in an old textile mill on the banks of the Souhegan River, but its business is far removed from the manufacture of blankets and shirts that brought New Hampshire riches in the Industrial Revolution.

Like many area companies, Warwick can't compete on cost alone in a global market, so it concentrates on developing new materials for specialty applications, including sailcloth for the world's largest sailing ship, fabric for blimps, and material for needle-resistant gloves.

The Beagle 2 was released Monday from its "mother ship," the orbital Mars Express, and on Christmas morning was to descend into the atmosphere at about 12,000 miles per hour.

If all went well, a shield protected it from heat and parachutes slowed it until it was several hundred yards above the surface, when three giant airbags were to inflate around the Beagle 2 as it was cut free from the parachutes.

The 70-pound craft then was to plummet into the Isidis Planitia Basin, where it would bounce 20 to 40 times, 100 feet or more into the air at first, before coming to a halt.

Then the bags were to deflate and allow the Beagle 2 to get to work analyzing gases and rocks.

That system was used on the 1997 Pathfinder mission, the most successful exploration of Mars ever.

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