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Sandia engineers ensure the safety of Mars Science Laboratory's plutonium battery

Sandia monitors nuclear safety of mission to Mars

A team of Sandia engineers has worked behind the scenes to ensure the smooth launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

NASA's $2.5 billion MSL rover, the largest and most sophisticated vehicle to visit Mars, is powered by a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or MMRTG. The generator uses heat from the decay of 10.6 pounds of plutonium dioxide into 110 watts of electricity to move the rover and run a suite of 10 instruments, which can do things like find water 32 feet below the surface and analyze chemical composition of rocks three car-lengths away.

While the MMRTG significantly increases the rover's range and lifetime from previous rovers, which relied on solar panels, launching nuclear material requires diligent attention to safety, and Sandia has been tasked with conducting the safety analysis report.

Read more about Sandia's work with monitoring the mission in Sandia's Lab News (scroll down to third story).