Monday, June 25, 2007

Super Sized Mars Rover

The Planetary Society's weblog has a great report by Emily Lakdawalla on her visit a few days ago to JPL's newly expanded "Mars yard" and the unveiling and demonstration of the mobility model (no instruments or "brains" so naturally called the scarecrow) of the Mars Science Laboratory. This is one super-sized rover as shown in her photos and video clips. MSL is under development for a 2009 launch. It will not use solar panels for power (radioisotope thermal generators instead), so it won't be dependent on serendipitous Martian dust devils and wind gusts to blow away dust to keep power levels high as are its smaller cousins Spirit and Opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Let me get this right. Is the plan really to use RTGs, powered by plutonium (!) on the Martian surface with this mission. RTG in space probes that never land is one thing, but actually putting plutonium on the surface of Mars is another. The risk of destroying the fragile Martian environment in the vicinity of the RTG seems very high. I don't like this at all.

Marty in Houston

FlyingSinger... said...

The RTG's have to be built to survive various launch and landing accident scenarios, and they have to be sufficiently well sealed to allow radiation detectors to do measurements on surface rocks (and to allow ground workers to be near the vehicle for assembly and testing). The plutonium will be sealed in heavy duty canisters and I'm sure the external radiation level will be very low.

So short of a landing accident that pulverizes the RTG's, how does this isolated plutonium destroy the fragile Martian environment? What does "fragile Martian environment" even mean? It's a big place and it's been pounded by meteorites for billions of years. I think it can stand a visit by a nuclear-powered rover, even if it drops like a rock onto the surface. These are not nuclear bombs - they can't explode. There are so many advantages in power and endurance, there's really no other way to do this mission.