On February 18, 2021, NASA announced the touchdown of Perseverance, the next rover to explore the surface of Mars. Its mission is to explore the red planet for signs of life from a bygone era.
Thousands of different scientists and engineers worked on the rover, including the men and women of Idaho National Laboratory.
Steve Johnson, the director of the Space Nuclear Power and Isotope Technologies Division (SNPIT) at INL, said in an interview with BYU-Idaho Radio that they had a major role to play in the creation of the rover.
“The power system, which is called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG for short, is essentially what makes the rover go and what provides power to all the instrumentation on board,” he said. “We assembled and tested it here and delivered and put it onto the rover that was strapped to the Atlas V-541 Rocket.”
The generator is powered by plutonium-238 and is designed to last years after the rocket fires into space. SNPIT knows exactly how to make high-powered generators like this, as this isn’t the first time INL has helped NASA with their projects.
“We worked on a similar generator for the last rover, Curiosity, which launched in 2011, and we also worked on a different style generator for the New Horizons probe that launched in 2006,” Johnson said.
Curiosity and New Horizons are both still sending data back to Earth, and Johnson said this wouldn’t be possible without the men and women of the INL.
“I hope that as the reports come in throughout the next weeks, months, and years that everybody in Eastern Idaho takes pride in the fact that a key part of that space mission was created right here in Eastern Idaho,” he said.
Johnson followed that up by saying, “it was an accomplishment for INL, and it was an accomplishment for the state of Idaho.”