A spacecraft is most reliable when its source of power is massive and technically fit. NASA thought of this and decided to develop the Perseverance Mars rover in a way that it can run on radioactive plutonium.
The radioactive plutonium used in this case has a casing that encapsulates it preventing accidents in case of a malfunction during the launch. The plutonium has proven to be active before in NASA’s Curiosity rover.
The NASA nuclear energy expert June Zakrajsek reiterates that NASA loves experimenting on the effectiveness of a spacecraft to operate in a diverse ecology. This statement is especially true with the Perseverance mission for which the Glenn Research Center in Ohio is vital to simulate such operations. In some environments, the researchers say solar energy is in insufficient quantities than the needed for the spacecraft to maneuver through space.
Various NASA Mars missions depended on solar energy like the Insight lander, Spirit and Opportunity. The Opportunity mission is the known casualty, which, when celestial dust ravaged the red planet, led to its tragic end. If such a rover depended on light, we would be talking a different story, which NASA is keen to address.
NASA decided to use plutonium via the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) for the Perseverance rover. This system can run the spacecraft for over a decade. Bob Wham, a nuclear energy developer, based in Oak Ridge National Laboratory, states that since it is unfeasible to call for a maintenance specialist in space, it must sustain itself efficiently.
The MMRTG of the Perseverance Mars rover is similar to that of the Curiosity rover, though with slight modifications. This design is sure to meet the Perseverance rover’s needs since the same system in Curiosity rover has proven to be active and reliable for over eight years now.
The MMRTG of the Perseverance can produce enough energy to light a bulb, run the spacecraft’s instruments and heat to keep it warm in cold seasons on Mars. In this production process, plutonium will be decaying and releasing the required energy.
The casing that encapsulates the plutonium composes of iridium, making it essential for reuse even when it falls back to earth. NASA will be increasing the number of expert crew on the rover to ensure that the mission is a success. These experts will also be able to tackle any uprising challenges due to the use of the plutonium. Additionally, there have been simulations to explore possible hitches that might make the mission go sideways. These are operations designed to test the crew’s preparedness for handling the MMRTG system containing the plutonium.
Finally, the plutonium used in this process is slightly less lethal than the one designed for the weaponized armory. The Department of Energy is keen to get back into the production of plutonium so that NASA can successfully launch their missions.