NASA's Curiosity rover is powered by a nuclear power-pack built by Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne in Canoga Park. Plutonium-238 powers the cameras and instruments on the rover, which is embarking on NASA's most sophisticated and complex mission yet. Conan Nolan reports from Canoga Park for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on August 20, 2012.
The Mars Rover Curiosity’s historic mission on the red planet is being powered by a nuclear pack made in Canoga Park.
Designed and built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, the power source for the 1-ton rover contains a non-weapons grade plutonium that works like a nuclear charcoal to charge the battery operating the cameras and instruments onboard the SUV size vehicle.
The power source – called Multi-Mission, Radio-isotope, Thermal-electric Generator, or MMRTG – will propel the rover over the red planet’s terrain.
“It’s generating power to power the rover but it’s also generating heat to heat the electronics to keep them at a certain level so they can perform and do the good things that they’re doing,” said Larry Trager of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.
Curiosity’s mission is expected to last two years but the MMRTG’s power is expected to last years longer.
“This design versus previous radio-isotope, thermal-electric generators is that it can operate both in a space environment: the vacuum of space and in the atmospheres of planets like Mars,” said Karl Wefers, with Pratt & Whitney.
The Golden State has played a key role in the rover’s success.
Scientists waited eagerly at mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge for the rover to land, and any striking color images that come back to Earth are thanks to a Redlands scientist, whose artistic sundial will illuminate the red planet’s true colors.