As one of the final tasks before NASA launches its latest unmanned rover, Perseverance, to Mars on Thursday, a crane hoisted the rover’s power source to the top of the nearly 200-foot-tall rocket and placed it into a hatch just beneath the MARS 2020 logo.
The roughly 100-pound, 2-foot-tall nuclear generator, designed and manufactured by Teledyne Energy Systems in Hunt Valley, converts plutonium into 110 watts of energy to heat and power the rover as it scours the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life.
“This type of power system enables the scientific community to study the origins of the solar system and potentially find the building blocks of life,” said Mitch Icard,vice president of Teledyne.
The rover and its Baltimore County-built power source will leave Earth at about 10,000 mph aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket, scheduled to launch during a two-hour window beginning about 7:50 a.m. Thursday, weather permitting, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The $2 billion Mars 2020 mission — which will be the ninth landing on the planet’s surface — will search for signs of life from billions of years ago and aims to pave the way for humans to visit one day, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington.
“We feel like we’re on the verge of being able to identify if life had formed someplace else in the solar system besides Earth,” said Glaze, who lives in Bowie. “We’re also making plans to send humans, and Perseverance is going to conduct several experiments that are going to help us prepare for that. The timing is perfect.”
Outfitted with a drill to collect rock and soil samples, as well as a slew of other high-tech instruments, Perseverance’s goals include “not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself,” according to NASA’s website.
The rover also will test a method for producing oxygen from the thin, carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere; search for water and other resources beneath the planet’s surface; and document “weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars,” according to the agency.
The red dust on Mars is one of the main reasons NASA uses nuclear power sources — known as multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generators (MMRTGs) — for its rovers. The planet’s unpredictable dust storms blocked sunlight and coated the solar panels used to power earlier prototypes, Icard said.
When that happens, he said, “there’s not much you can do about it from Earth.”
By contrast, “a dust storm is nothing more than a bad picture day” for Perseverance, he said.
Instead of relying on sunlight, the generator’s thermoelectric modules convert plutonium-238′s radioactive decay into thermal energy that can last 17 years or more, said Steve Keyser, Teledyne’s MMRTG program manager.
The power source also heats the rover to protect its astrobiology equipment in Mars’ negative 80- to 195-degree temperatures.
If the concept of nuclear-powered spaceship generators being built and tested in the Baltimore area sounds at all alarming, rest assured that Teledyne manufactures only the hardware.
“There’s no plutonium in Hunt Valley,” Keyser said.
A team of about a dozen Teledyne scientists and engineers, supported by roughly 50 other employees, has been developing the Perseverance rover’s generator in Hunt Valley since 2012, the year the Curiosity rover landed on Mars with its own Teledyne power source, Keyser said.
The Perseverance generator was put through a battery of tests to ensure its durability, including vibrating table and electric heat source simulations, at Teledyne before being sent to Aerojet Rocketdyne, the Sacramento, California-based rocket manufacturer, for systems integration. (The companies are unrelated, despite their similar names.)
From California, the generator traveled in late 2018 to Idaho National Laboratory. There, it received more testing, including a thermal vacuum simulation to ensure its capabilities in space, as well as its nuclear fuel.
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“This has been put through the ringer,” Keyser said. “It performed well.”
Finally, the generator arrived in Florida, where it was the last piece placed into the rocket Monday.
“Once they’ve got the final flight checks, we sit back and wait for the launch,” Icard said. “Really, it’s a time to sit back and enjoy the moment. ... These don’t come along very often.”
This week’s mission will be the latest, but not the last, foray into the solar system for Teledyne, which began as part of the Martin Co. in the 1950s and celebrated its own 50th anniversary in 2018.
Teledyne’s nuclear power sources were used for the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft in 1972 and 1973, along with the Viking 1 and 2 Mars landers in 1975. The company is planning to develop generators for upcoming deep-space missions to moons of Saturn and Neptune, Icard said.
“To enable this type of science and research is something everyone should be proud of,” he said.