NASA's new rover Curiosity is equipped with a plutonium nuclear energy source to power the probe as it explores the surface of Mars.
Engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center installed a nuclear power source Thursday onto the Mars rover set to launch this month. The rover, named Curiosity, is the latest in unmanned missions to Mars, and is expected to provide new evidence about Mars history, including clues as to whether the Red Planet ever harbored life.
The rover is powered by radioactive plutonium-238. As the plutonium undergoes decay, its heat is converted into electricity to power the rover’s electronic devices. According to the Idaho National Laboratory, which built the power source, NASA chose a nuclear generator for the rover because it had several advantages over the solar panels previously used to power Mars rovers. The plutonium core allows the probe’s instruments to run even before it is deployed on the surface, even during atmospheric descent and landing. The nuclear source is also less affected by weather and daylight conditions on Mars, factors that have hampered previous missions, as when the twin Mars Exploration Rovers encountered dust storms that covered their solar panels while operating on Mars from 2004 to 2011.
Mission planners report that the radioactive power source provides no danger to the public during launch. According to reports from SpaceflightNow, engineers estimate only a 1-in-400 chance of escape of radioactive material during launch, and even were such an event to occur, the exposure to radioactivity for observers of the launch would be less than an average year’s dose of radiation from natural sources.
Installing the radioactive core onto the rover is one of the final steps necessary to prepare the probe for launch, currently scheduled for November 26th. Curiosity is expected to reach and land on Mars in August of 2012. The nuclear core can provide power for up to fourteen years, although the rover is expected to operate for approximately two years.