The Mars 2020 rover just got the green light to begin fueling, with a nuclear battery powering the spacecraft and keeping it warm.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA said with the fueling beginning the progression of the Mars 2020 rover project remains on schedule. He called the decision to fuel its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator of MMRTG an "important milestone" to stay on track for a July 2020 launch.
Nuclear Battery to Fuel Mars 2020 Rover
Using a nuclear battery, the MMRTG will be able to provide 110 watts of electrical power to the Mars 2020 rover and the science instruments while the excess heat from the generator can keep the spacecraft warm. MMRTG works by converting the decay or radioisotope materials into electricity. The generator is made up of a heat source that contains plutonium-238 and thermocouples that convert the decay heat energy to electricity.
"We are advancing on all fronts - including completion of the cruise stage that will guide us to Mars and the sky crane descent landing system that will gently lower us to the surface," said Project Manager John McNamee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission in Pasadena, California in a press release announcing the start of the fueling. "And the rover is not only looking more and more like a rover each day, it's acting like one."
This isn't the first time NASA has used radioisotope power. In fact, it's been used in 27 past U.S. space missions including the Viking missions on Mars and more recently the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto.
NASA Hits Milestone with Fueling of Rover
According to reports, the interior of the rover is almost completed while the exterior of the spacecraft is still being constructed.
In November NASA announced it has chosen Jezero Crater as the landing site for its rover mission to Mars. NASA spent five years searching for the landing site, evaluating 60 different locations on the Red Planet before deciding on the Jezero Crater. The mission slated for July of 2020 is the next step in NASA's exploration of Mars. The mission is not only aimed at seeking signs of habitable conditions but the rover will collect rock and soil samples and store them in a cache on Mars' surface.
“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Zurbuchensaid at the time. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”