NASA’s Mars rover loaded up with nuclear power ahead of next week’s launch

NASA's Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter depicted on Mars. | Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Perseverance rover destined for Mars next week has completed another step in preparation for launch – installation, and activation of its nuclear power source.

“The #MarsPerseverance MMRTG [multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator] is installed and doing well. This Red Planet dune buggy is fueled and ready to go!” wrote Tory Bruno, CEO of launch provider ULA, via Twitter on Wednesday. He further clarified what this process means in response to a question about the power source. “RTGs [radioisotope thermoelectric generators] are ‘activated’ at the moment of assembly because the radio source continuously generates heat which solid state thermoelectric devices turn into voltage.”

While nuclear power may find itself in the middle of an ongoing debate on Earth, it’s an essential and frequently used source of energy for off-planet exploration. The decay of plutonium-238 provides the type of nuclear power being used for Perseverance. This process generates heat that’s converted into a 110W source of electricity to charge the rover’s two lithium-ion batteries. It will provide a 14-year lifespan, although the rover’s mission is scheduled to last less than two years.

One of the most unique features of the Perseverance mission is a companion that will fly on the surface of the red planet: The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. If successful, Ingenuity will be the first aircraft attempt at controlled flight outside of Earth.

These are big shoes to fill for such a tiny robot, the helicopter weighs only about 4 pounds with a body the size of a softball, but it may open up a whole new world of experimental possibilities. NASA also has plans to explore Saturn’s moon Titan using a similar helicopter in a future mission.

Another experiment onboard NASA’s latest rover that’s directly related to future human exploration is MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment). As the description may indicate, this technology demonstration will produce oxygen using the existing carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. It’s a concept that has been proposed by both Martian habitation advocates and science fiction writers alike, and now the idea is ready to be put to a real (really real) world test.

Perseverance’s launch is currently scheduled for July 30th and will lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. About two weeks ago, the rover was encapsulated inside the payload fairing of the Atlas V 541 rocket that will carry it into space to begin its seven-month journey to Mars. Once there, Perseverance will use its specialized instruments onboard – including 19 cameras – to seek signs of both habitable conditions in the ancient past and signs of past microbial life.

NASA’s Mars rover loaded up with nuclear power ahead of next week’s launch
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