Skip to main content

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Curiosity’s new selfie a reminder that the plucky rover is still busy on Mars
NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars.

NASA’s Curiosity rover is back in the spotlight after the space agency shared a recent selfie snapped by the veteran Mars explorer.

While NASA's newer, more advanced Perseverance rover tends to get all the attention these days, Curiosity, which landed on the martian surface in 2012, continues to investigate the faraway planet in a bid to learn more about the distance location.

Read more
Check out this eerie Mars sunset captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover
A sunset on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover recently took some time out of its busy Mars exploration to capture a striking image of the setting sun.

Snapped earlier this month and posted by the space agency in recent days, the image (below) shows an eerie glow behind Mars’ rocky landscape.

Read more
Mars helicopter Ingenuity is reuniting with Perseverance rover
NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter acquired this image using its navigation camera. This camera is mounted in the helicopter's fuselage and pointed directly downward to track the ground during flight. This image was acquired on Oct. 24, 2021 (Sol 241 of the Perseverance rover mission) at the local mean solar time of 12:34:15.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity is gearing up for its 15th flight this weekend, beginning a journey that will take it back to its landing location and reunite it with its rover buddy Perseverance.

The flight scheduled for today, Saturday, November 6, will take Ingenuity back in the direction of the Wright Brothers Field where it took its first flights, by the Octavia E. Butler landing site. The helicopter team reports that they expect it will take between four and seven flights for the helicopter to return to its original landing site. Ingenuity will rejoin Perseverance at the Séítah region before heading off to explore the Jezero river delta.

Read more