WHAT IS INL’S ROLE WITH SPACE TRAVEL?


Idaho National Laboratory’s Space Nuclear Power and Isotope Technologies Division fuels and tests Radioisotope Power Systems at the Materials and Fuels Complex, then delivers the systems for use in remote, harsh environments such as space. INL is working on the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) for NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission that will send a rover to the Red Planet. Generators fueled and tested at INL are currently powering the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover (launched in 2011 and still going strong) and Pluto New Horizons (launched in 2006 and now more than 4.1 billion miles from earth, traveling at more than 30,000 mph). The power system on New Horizons was the first assembled and tested at INL.

THE TIMELINE FOR THE MARS 2020 MULTI-MISSION RADIOISOTOPE THERMOELECTRIC GENERATOR

Scroll through the timeline events below.


WHAT IS AN MMRTG, AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators are ideal for space missions because they are compact, durable and reliable, providing continuous power over long periods of time. The Department of Energy (DOE) provides radioisotope power systems to NASA for civil space applications. The MMRTG for the Mars 2020 mission will be fueled and tested at the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory. It will later be shipped directly from INL to the launch site at Kennedy Space Center Florida, for integration into the rover.

MMRTG’s work by converting heat from the natural decay of radioisotope materials into electricity. Typically, the hot side of a general purpose heat source is 1800 degrees Fahrenheit while the cold side is approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit. The generators consist of two major elements: a heat source that contains plutonium-238 (Pu-238) and thermocouples that convert the plutonium’s decay heat energy and the cold of space to electricity. The MMRTG is designed to produce about 110 watts of electrical power to begin the mission. The system has a design life of 14 years (plus three years of pre-launch storage), but can be expected to produce power much longer than that. Additionally, the MMRTG provides a source of heat for the rover’s instruments and on-board systems in the cold environment. Thermocouples have no moving parts and have proved an amazingly reliable source of energy for space missions. They have been used in RTGs for a combined total of 300 years, and not one thermocouple has failed.
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Atomic Power in Space II
A History of Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in the United States

Atomic Power in Space II is a sequel to Atomic Power in Space (published by the Department of Energy [DOE] in 1987). Beginning with a brief overview of the programs and systems developed through the late 1970s, Atomic Power in Space II traces the development and use of space nuclear power systems, including the missions and programs for which they were developed, to the present day. The history is written largely in nontechnical language so as to be useful to the general reader as well as the seasoned space nuclear professional.

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Questions? Email Jeff Pinkham or call (208)-533-7404