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NASA robots use nuclear energy on Mars

USANASA uses plutonium in a radioactive isotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) system, which can power the Perseverance self-propelled robot for 14 years.

Perseverance robot uses a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Photo: NASA.

Some of NASA’s Mars missions are powered by solar energy. For example, the InSight landing station operating on the red planet is equipped with solar panels, similar to the self-propelled robot duo Spirit and Opportunity earlier this century. But Opportunity also exposed a weak point of this energy on Mars due to the robot’s shutdown when a strong dust storm prevented the device from harnessing sunlight. However, that won’t happen with autonomous robots powered by nuclear energy.

Like the rest of the Perseverance self-propelled robot, the MMRTG’s design is mainly based on Curiosity launched in 2011 and landed on Mars in 2012. MMRTG was in development for 7 years, almost twice as long. previous version used on the robot Curiosity, and worth 75 million USD.

Perseverance’s MMRTG generator is designed to produce 110 watts of electricity, equivalent to the amount of electricity used by a light bulb. The plutonium will decay, emitting heat for the generator to convert into electricity, supplying all of the autonomous robot’s equipment, and at the same time generating enough heat to help heat up during the cold Martian nights. Initially, scientists fired neutrons at neptunium in a nuclear reactor for nearly two months to convert it into plutonium for MMRTG. Plutonium is then mixed with porcelain, forming a safer compound.

However, putting nuclear power on top of the missile still requires a lot of precautions. Each block of plutonium encased in iridium contains radioactive material if dropped back to Earth. According to NASA, the model from the government shows the chance of that happening at just 0.1%. Perseverance is being placed on the launch pad with the MMRTG generator containing 32 blocks of material, ready to fly to the red planet.

(According to Space)

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