You are here

Radioisotopes: Energy for Space Exploration

Radioisotope Power Systems, a strong partnership between the Energy Department's Office of Nuclear Energy and NASA, has been providing the energy for deep space exploration.

This past weekend, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral with the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on the red planet.

Its mission: to investigate whether the Gale Crater on Mars has ever offered environmental conditions that support the development of microbial life.

I am proud to say that this mission is made possible by nuclear space power systems developed by the Energy Department. This year marks the 50th anniversary of nuclear-powered space exploration.

On Curiosity, the Department’s Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) will provide continuous power to the rover and effective operating temperatures for its 11 scientific instruments. This is particularly important on Mars where reliable power is critical to maintain operation of the rover in the planet’s dusty environment and during the cold Martian nights and frigid winter.

The MMRTG, which was constructed, assembled and tested by the Energy Department and the Idaho, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, uses heat produced by the natural decay of plutonium-238 to generate 110 watts of electricity.

These power systems have been used for space missions since 1961, including on the Apollo and Viking missions; the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft; and the Voyager probes.

We’re proud to share in the discoveries this technology has made possible, and I invite you to check out our latest video commemorating this inspiring legacy.