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Mars rover draws on nuclear power for trek around Red Planet

August 07, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

Now that the spacecraft 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.

That power will be supplied by an advanced nuclear generator, 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 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.

NASA officials said Monday that Curiosity will not begin its journey for at least a week.

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

"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. Energy Department. The company said the generator was designed to operate in various environments, from the vacuum of deep space to extremely harsh planet surfaces.

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.)

Although the process sounds complicated, the conversion of heat directly into electricity is not a new principle. It was discovered 191 years ago by German scientist Thomas Johann Seebeck.

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