NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity
At twice the length and five times the weight of any of its predecessors, Curiosity is the brawniest and best-equipped rover ever sent to another planet. A plutonium-powered thermoelectric generator will give the SUV-size six-wheeler an anticipated life span of some 700 Earth-days, about eight times as long as its solar-powered predecessors were expected to last. Curiosity will cover up to 660 rugged feet a day, carrying a payload of scientific instruments 10 times as heavy as that of previous rovers. Among other things, it will be able to vaporize rocks using a laser, analyze the resulting gases, and bring the most interesting specimens on board for further study. Curiosity is set to launch in November and to arrive next August in the Gale Crater.
Robert1234 The safety of the plutonium package is highly questionable. If the unit crashed...it WILL be killing people for centuries. Perhaps the package could be safely stored and then "assembled" in space and launched for the target? Plutonium is VERY dangerous to humans as well as animals.
Robert, I wonder what it is that leads you to state "the safety of the plutonium package is highly questionable". From a long career of space hardware, I'm pretty confident in the safety testing required before proceeding with such programs.
I attended the Tweetup associated with the launch of the Mars Science Lab. Part of the two days of excellent content was a presentation by Ryan Bechtel from the Department of Energy that was largely concerned with the safety of the plutonium used to power and heat the rover.
Here's a PDF of his presentation: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/pdf/MMRTG_RyanBechtel_DOE.pdf
* The fuel is plutonium oxide, a ceramic that minimizes respirable fines.
* Fuel pellets are clad in iridium to contain and protect the fuel.
* Cladded pellets are further wrapped in carbon fiber and stacked in the fuel module.
* At least 11 tests, including fire, impact, and pressure tests are run and no release is detected.
* This exact power method has been used safely on 26 missions since 1961.
Suffice to say, they care a lot about safety and over-design the power module to ensure no fuel release in case of an accident.
Robert, you should also look up some past spacecraft. The US has been launching satellites with radioactive power systems for decades.