London: NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is scheduled to launch this week, may be the most productive Mars surface mission in history, thanks to its nuclear heat and power source.
When the rover Curiosity heads to space as early as Saturday, it will carry the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface.
Those instruments will get their lifeblood from a radioisotope power system assembled and tested at Idaho National Laboratory.
The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator is the latest “space battery” that can reliably power a deep space mission for many years.
The device provides a continuous source of heat and power for the rover’s instruments.
NASA has used nuclear generators to safely and reliably power 26 missions over the past 50 years. New generators like the one destined for Mars are painstakingly assembled and extensively tested at INL before heading to space.
“This power system will enable Curiosity to complete its ambitious expedition in Mars’ extreme temperatures and seasons,” said Stephen Johnson, director of INL’s Space Nuclear Systems and Technology Division.
“When the unit leaves here, we’ve verified every aspect of its performance and made sure it’s in good shape when it gets to Kennedy Space Centre,” he stated.
The power system provides about 110 watts of electricity and can run continuously for many years.
The system will supply warmth and electricity to Curiosity and its scientific instruments using heat from nuclear decay.
Curiosity is expected to land on Mars in August 2012 and carry out its mission over 23 months.
It will investigate Mars’ Gale Crater for clues about whether environmental conditions there have favoured the development of microbial life, and to preserve any evidence it finds.