How Do You Power a Vehicle for Mars?

The Curiosity is a mobile robot—think of it as an autonomous vehicle—that, if all goes as planned by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, which manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, will land near the Martian equator at about 10:31 pm, PDT, August 5.

The Curiosity is a mobile robot—think of it as an autonomous vehicle—that, if all goes as planned by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, which manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, will land near the Martian equator at about 10:31 pm, PDT, August 5.

And then the Curiosity will roll. It has the ability to go up and over obstacles up to 65 centimeters high and travel up to some 200 meters per day.

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(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The power for Curiosity comes from a U.S. Department of Energy radioisotope power generator. This thermoelectric generator produces electricity which charge lithium-ion batteries. And the source of the power is. . .the radioactive decay of plutonium-238.

Yes, an atomic-powered vehicle.

Given that there are no service stations (at least none that we are presently aware of) on Mars, the fuel has to have a considerable amount of longevity. The scientists estimate that the plutonium-238 fuel is good for an entire Mars year, which is 687 days for us Earthlings.

And as this is a vehicle , and as we generally provide specs for vehicles:

Length: 3.0 meters (not counting the arm, which extends 2 meters)

Width: 2.8 meters

Height at top of mast: 2.1 meters

Wheel diameter: 0.5 meters

Curb weight (a.k.a., mass): 899 kilograms