How nuke power bested solar in latest Mars mission

Heading off on a long journey to Mars on Saturday is NASA’s new Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory which, once it lands on the Red Planet, will be powered by nuclear energy. Unlike previous Mars rovers — the Spirit and the Opportunity — which were powered by the sun and couldn’t work in dark crevasses, on the wrong side of mountains or at night, the Curiosity will power through all of those times and spaces like a champ. Slated to have a 23-month stay, the Curiosity’s engine could theoretically last a few decades.

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The Curiosity will garner its power from a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator produced by Boeing that will provide 125W of electricity at the start of the mission. Over time the generator will become less productive and is slated to put out 100W after 14 years of service. NASA chose nuclear power for this Rover due to difficulties in the limitations of solar power on Mars. If the light was dim in certain places the rovers could not explore them and dust storms caused the solar panels to become covered and put out less energy. Even ehen fully charged the batteries could only keep the rover going for about four hours at a time.

With this new generator the rover will have a continuous electrical output that will allow NASA to conduct more experiments in a smaller amount of time and explore darker areas on the planet that previously were untouchable. The nuclear generator is also more powerful, and provides 2.5 kilowatt hours of energy per day whereas the previous solar panels provided just .6 kilowatt hours. The launch window for Curiosity opens up at 10:02 a.m. EST on November, 26th and though the rover will be sending out no emissions on the Red Planet, unfortunately the rocket fuel needed to blast it off from Earth — just like every other NASA blast off in history — will leave quite the mess of climate change-causing emissions on our planet.

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