ANS Nuclear Matinee: Mars Rover Curiosity, A Nuclear Powered Mobile Laboratory

Early on Monday morning (1:31AM Eastern Daylight Time), after having traveled 352 million miles, NASA’s robotic rover Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside the Gale Crater on the surface of Mars. Soon after, it will begin looking for clues about possible early forms of Martian life.

The Curiosity rover carries much more scientific equipment than previous Mars rovers. How to run so much heavy, power-intensive scientific research equipment for a mobile laboratory on another planet? Nuclear power!

Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, explains in this week’s video.

8 thoughts on “ANS Nuclear Matinee: Mars Rover Curiosity, A Nuclear Powered Mobile Laboratory

  1. James Greenidge

    Great Job NASA/JPL! Can’t wait for the lab to roll!

    But nary a mention of nuclear or plutonium in the coverage! Compare this to YouTube vids of early Spirit/Opportunity interviews and coverage which seem to mention solar power or solar something every ten minutes! NASA’s “green-friendly” appropriations bids are still nuke shy it seems. Too bad Juno!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. Bruce Behrhorst

    In the words of Gary Bennett developer of RTG’s & MMRTG should have been used long ago by NASA/DOE on landers with extended Ops. like drilling & mine assay sample return.

    …Better late than never.

  3. Martin Burkle

    Is there a supply of the plutomium isotope used for this mission? How is it made?

  4. Jaro Franta

    James Greenidge’s post about NASA not flaunting their plutonium RTGs is right on the money: In fact, for several years prior to launch, NASA’s illustrations showed the MSL rover without an RTG — in other words, the rover as shown would in fact not move an inch.
    Mind you, this was long AFTER it was already decided by the development team that the rover would have to be nuclear powered !
    Engineering design CAD drawings showed RTGs since almost ten years ago, but as late as October 2010, the “Artist’s Concept” illustrations on NASA’s popular web site still showed an unpowered machine.
    As the hardware was being built & assembled, the change eventually became unavoidable, as shown in these two NASA pictures:

    Also, regarding the solar-powered Juno mission to Jupiter, this quote provides a good idea of how power-starved the spacecraft is:
    “The mission’s power needs are modest, with science instruments requiring full power for only about six hours out of each 11-day orbit (during the period near closest approach to the planet).”
    … other words, Juno’s science instruments operate only 2.3% of the time !

  5. Emory Brown

    As a nuclear engineering student wanting to specialize in RTG’s, I absolutely love that there is more recognition for the ways that NASA uses nuclear power for some of the most demanding missions. Maybe one day I can talk to someone and they will know that nuclear has so many more uses than bombs and fission power plants.

  6. Bill Eaton

    Alas, the passing of widespread respect and admiration of technology as a means of adding quality and value to life and society.
    At one time years ago, people were enamored with new technology and respected those who invented, improved, or applied it to daily life. Nowadays we are bombarded with Homer Simpson stereotypes, geek exploiting sit-coms, and politically correct/biased versions of technological comment based on how “green” someone thinks the technology is.
    Saints preserve us from half-informed opinion and policy makers who get their information from legislative staffers, news bytes, and Ipads.
    There, I feel better now.

  7. James Greenidge

    Sometimes NASA sounds outright apologetic for using nuclear power and (gasp!) plutonium instead of angelically green solar power. They sure don’t flaunt RTGs on their stuff as much as they do with solar panels. Their PR-funding concern to appear green and friendly sure worked since Juno’s heading for Jupiter with lots of solar panels, to the quiet misgivings of those with whittled down science packages.

    I can’t wait to see whether the “skycrane” gimmick works out, though I still believe simply enhancing the post-parachute retros more and lowering the probe the same way would’ve been simpler and less risky thought not as dramatic.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

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