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Powered By Plutonium, NASA’s New Mars Rover Is Ready To Roll


Last week, NASA’s new Mars rover, Perseverance, received its nuclear power source, called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, whose energy is provided by a tiny piece of plutonium (Pu-238). The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy supplied the plutonium.

Tory Bruno, head of the United Launch Alliance declared, “This Red Planet dune buggy is fueled and ready to go!”

This is good because the rocket carrying the rover is set to launch tomorrow, Thursday July 30th, from Cape Canaveral. The Pu will run the instruments and keep them warm during the cold Martian nights and winters, which are cold enough to freeze electronics down.

When you’re as far out from the Sun as Mars, and have to endure long periods of darkness, and don’t have the luxury of dragging along tons of chemical fuel, radioisotopes are a must to keep operating. You only need 1.8 ounces of Pu to fuel this rover with 110 watts of electrical power for abut 15 years.

The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator is a type of radioisotope power system, where the decay of a radionuclide such as Pu-238 provides energy for a long time. The specific radioisotope to use on a mission depends on the mission length and energy needs. The half-life of Pu-238 is 88 years, perfect for most space missions and the reason that dozens of them have been powered by it over the decades.

This plutonium (Pu-238) is not the same as that used in nuclear weapons (Pu-239). Pu-238 does not fission easily and cannot enter into nuclear chain reactions. It just decays away, producing energy as it does.

And the Pu-238 source will power quite the mission in Perseverance.

The rectangular compact car-sized rover is about 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall (about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide, and 2.2 meters tall), weighing in at 2,314 lbs. (1,050 kilograms). It has six wheels, a long arm and hand, 23 cameras that are smart with color and 3D that can be snapped on the run, a host of instruments, and a drill for sampling rocks, some of which will eventually be returned to Earth.

Perseverance can negotiate terrain that no previous rover ever could.

Perseverance has a suite of cutting-edge instruments, including an X-ray spectrometer and an ultraviolet laser to seek out biosignatures from the past on a microbial scale. A ground-penetrating radar will be the first rover instrument to look under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 30 feet (10 m) deep.

Perseverance will also carry a microphone, which can relay the sounds of the Red Planet back to Earth, the first time we will be able to listen to sounds on Mars. And with an atmospheric pressure six one-thousandths that of Earth, it could sound really weird.

Much of this capability is to allow the rover to get evidence of ancient life on Mars. Perseverance is the first rover to bring a sample caching system to Mars that will package promising samples for return to Earth by a future mission already in the planning. Rather than pulverizing rock like usual, Perseverance’s drill will cut small intact rock cores, then place them in sample tubes to store until the rover reaches the drop-off point.

This mission will provide invaluable assistance for both robotic and crewed missions to Mars.

Perseverance is heading to Jezero Crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator (see figure). The crater was a possible oasis in its distant past, home to an ancient lake system. Two inlet channels that fed the lake have large delta-like formations where sediment was dumped in the lake.

Those deltas record the history of two separate water events in the Jezero region and should provide some very key information on possible life and water in the planet’s past. On ancient Mars, water carved these channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins. Examination of spectral data acquired from orbit show that some of these sediments have minerals that indicate chemical alteration by water including clays and carbonates.

Perseverance also carries a key technology demonstration, called Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. This instrument will produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, demonstrating the way future astronauts could produce oxygen for rocket propellant as well as for breathing.

Breathing – something we will need to do on any planet.

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