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Mars rover draws on nuclear power for trek around Red Planet

August 05, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • Engineers work on a replica of the Mars rover Curiosity at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Caada Flintridge.
Engineers work on a replica of the Mars rover Curiosity at Jet Propulsion… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

Now that Curiosity is safe on Martian soil, the largest and most advanced machine NASA ever sent to another planet needs power to get its 2,000-pound frame moving.

To get it going, the rover will be powered by an advanced nuclear power system, called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, developed by Hamilton Sundstrand Rocketdyne engineers in Canoga Park.

The generator is crucial to the $2.5-billion Mars mission, which centered around Curiosity trekking through the Gale Crater toward a central mountain. The rover also needs power for its many instruments aimed at finding out whether Mars is -- or ever has been -- hospitable to life. Its main mission is slated to last 23 months, or one Martian year.

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

Larry Trager, general manager at Hamilton Sundstrand Rocketdyne, said the generator could power the rover for years to come.

“The power source is capable for 14 years even though the mission isn't set to go that long,” he said. “It’s very robust.”

Hamilton Sundstrand Rocketdyne engineers developed the generator in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The company said the generator was designed to operate in a range of different environments, from the vacuum of deep space to extreme planetary surface environments.

So how does it work? It works by converting heat from the natural decay of radioisotope materials into electricity.

The Energy Department and NASA said the system consists of two major elements: a heat source that contains plutonium-238 dioxide and a set of solid-state thermocouples that convert the plutonium’s heat energy to electricity. (Plutonium-238 is not weapons-grade material.)

While the process sounds new-fangled, conversion of heat directly into electricity is not a new principle. It was discovered 150 years ago by a German scientist named Thomas Johann Seebeck.

MORE ON THE MISSION TO MARS:

NASA hopes Mars landing site tells a tale

Interactive graphic: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

Here's the man responsible for messing up the Mars mission

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