US DOE delivers power system for NASA Mars launch

15 June 2020

  Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (Credit: DOE)The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy has delivered its latest nuclear power system to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida - the site of NASA’s planned Mars 2020 launch later this summer.

The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) was fuelled, built and tested by DOE’s national laboratories to power the mission’s Perseverance rover.

Perseverance will be the first rover to use plutonium created by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The lab, along with Idaho National  Laboratory (INL) and Los Alamos National Laboratory, is helping NASA boost its fuel supply for plutonium-238. ORNL recently automated part of the production process allowing the lab to produce up to 400 grams of Pu-238 each year, moving closer to NASA’s goal of 1.5 kilograms a year by 2025.

Radioisotope power systems (RPS) convert heat generated by the natural decay of Pu-238 into electrical power. The MMRTG will provide electricity for the basic operations of the Perseverance rover and keep the rover’s tools and systems at optimal temperatures. The power system has an operational lifespan of 14 years which surpasses the energy needs of the rover’s year-long journey to, and exploration of, Mars.

DOE maintains the essential infrastructure to help fuel, build and test each power system. ORNL provides the heat source materials and hardware for NASA missions. LANL purifies and encapsulates the Pu-238. INL then assembles, tests, and assures the final delivery of the RPS. The MMRTG, F-2, is the latest power system provided to NASA by DOE in a long-term relationship to accomplish great things in space exploration.

The delivery and installation of the MMRTG completes the RPS production phase of this project. A hot fit check was conducted to test the rover’s system while powered by the MMRTG. A small crew from INL will monitor the power system around the clock until its anticipated launch on 17 July. DOE’s next MMRTG is set to power the Dragonfly rotorcraft lander mission to explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Since solar energy is not a viable option in Titan’s hazy atmosphere, the MMRTG will play a major role in supplying power to the spacecraft. Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2026.

Photo:  Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator  (Photo: DOE)

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