Nasa’s new Mars rover powered by RTGs

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Perseverance Mars from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The rover is expected to land on Mars in February 2021. It will be powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) developed at the Department of Energy's (DOE’s) Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
 
NASA said the rover, was powered by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 541 rocket. ULA is the only space launch provider certified to handle Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs), according to ULA president and CEO, Tory Bruno. NASA certifies the rocket, but NASA and DOE together certify the provider to carry a nuclear payload, he explained.

RTGs work by converting heat from the natural decay of radioisotope materials into electricity. The generators consist of two major elements: a heat source that contains plutonium-238 (Pu-238) and thermocouples. The thermocouples produce electricity based on the temperature differential between the hot side (Pu-238) and the cold side (RTG housing). This electricity production is based on a well-known scientific effect called the Seebeck effect.
The system has a design life of 17 years, but it can be expected to produce power much longer than that. The RTG also provides a source of heat for the rover’s instruments and onboard systems in the cold environment of space. Thermocouples have no moving parts and have proved to be a reliable source of energy for space missions.
The Pu-238 fuel for the  MMRTG was supplied by DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission is to seek out signs of past microscopic life on Mars, explore the diverse geology of its landing site, Jezero Crater, and demonstrate key technologies that will help to prepare for future robotic and human exploration.

INL’s space power systems team  assembles, tests and delivers the RTGs, which provide the onboard heat and electrical power for NASA’s planetary missions. The latest Radioisotope Power System (RPS) is  the MMRTG. Late last year, the team finished assembling and testing the MMRTG for the Perseverance Rover. INL delivered the system this spring to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in preparation for the launch.
The MMRTG arrived at Kennedy Space Centre in April  following its final assembly and transport from INL. Previously INL provided the power source for the Pluto New Horizons spacecraft, which launched in 2006 and continues to send back data as it nears the edges of the galaxy, and the Mars Curiosity Rover, launched in 2011 which is still moving around the Mars surface after 10 years of operation.

The next INL-assembled and tested MMRTG will power the Dragonfly rotorcraft lander mission that will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. That mission is scheduled to launch in 2026. The Space Nuclear Power and Isotopes Systems group is also getting more involved in space reactors for both nuclear thermal propulsion and fission surface power applications.

RTGs work by converting heat from the natural decay of radioisotope materials into electricity. The generators consist of two major elements: a heat source that contains plutonium-238 (Pu-238) and thermocouples. The thermocouples produce electricity based on the temperature differential between the hot side (Pu-238) and the cold side (RTG housing). This electricity production is based on a well-known scientific effect called the Seebeck effect.
The system has a design life of 17 years, but it can be expected to produce power much longer than that. The RTG also provides a source of heat for the rover’s instruments and onboard systems in the cold environment of space. Thermocouples have no moving parts and have proved to be an amazingly reliable source of energy for space missions.

Photo: NASA

 

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