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All systems nearing go: NASA fuels Mars 2020 rover’s plutonium power system

The electricity for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is provided by a power system called a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. The MMRTG will be inserted into the aft end of the rover between the panels with gold tubing visible at the rear, which are called heat exchangers. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Preparations continue for the launch of the Mars 2020 rover next year, with NASA engineers now fueling its power system.

The latest component to be readied is the rover’s generator, which is called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. This is “essentially a nuclear battery,” according to NASA, that will provide 110 watts of power to the rover. The excess heat generated along with the electricity will also be important in keeping the rover snug and warm as it explores the cold Martian environment.

As the generator uses the heat from decaying plutonium to create electricity, it has to be fueled at just the right time. The timetable for fueling the generator is based upon the launch date, and since the engineers are confident they are on schedule, the fueling process can begin now.

“The progression of the Mars 2020 rover project is on schedule,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “The decision to begin fueling the MMRTG is another important milestone in keeping to our timetable for a July 2020 launch.”

Other components are coming together as well, including the rover’s interior, which is nearly completely ready. The only interior part yet to be installed is the Adaptive Caching Assembly, a complex system of seven motors and more than 3,000 parts that will retrieve and store samples of rock from the Martian surface. Most exterior parts have been added as well. The instruments already added include the wheels and suspension system, the robotic arm, and the central mast, as well as the high-gain antenna.

“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,” Project Manager John McNamee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in the same statement. “And the rover is not only looking more and more like a rover each day, it’s acting like one.”

The launch of the Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to take place this time next year, between July 17 and August 5.

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