Some key technology for the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” was developed by U. S. Department of Energy laboratories—especially the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (“MMRTG”) that keeps Curiosity functioning on Mars, and the Chemistry Camera (“ChemCam”) designed to determine the composition of Martian soil and rocks. Department of Energy labs also contribute methods to check spacecraft for microbes before launch to help make sure (among other things) that any signs of life found on Mars didn’t come from here; the labs also have a hand in planning for future explorations. The reports listed below describe these contributions by Department of Energy lab researchers and their collaborators.
How do you run chemical tests at a geologic site millions of miles away from you to see what the rocks and soil are made of? Curiosity’s new instrument ChemCam, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is designed to determine how much light is emitted at each frequency by a geologic sample when it’s heated by a laser beam. Since different materials have different light-emission patterns, measuring the patterns shows what materials emitted them.
Slide presentations giving a general view of Los Alamos contributions to ChemCam:
Page 29 of 33 in this slide presentation illustrates Los Alamos contributions to the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” in detail.
Slide presentation that describes Los Alamos’ role in NASA missions Genesis (which sampled particles from the sun to help understand its composition) and Curiosity.
How ChemCam works, how it’s calibrated, and how the frequency spectrum it reads is translated into soil or rock sample compositions:
According to this report, ChemCam is one of the 10 instrument suites on the Mars Science Laboratory built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for the next NASA mission to Mars (MSL 2009) [the originally planned launch date]. ChemCam is an instrument package consisting of two remote sensing instruments: a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) and a Remote Micro-Imager (RMI). L1BS provides elemental compositions of rocks and soils, while the RMI places the LIBS analyses in their geomorphologic context.
Curiosity’s ChemCam does its job on Mars but is to be operated from Earth, initially at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and afterward in shifts at DoE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and the French space agency CNES. Here’s a description of the workings of the CNES operations center as well as of ChemCam itself.
As the article “RTG—History, the Curiosity, and New Horizons” (http://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/rtg.html) describes, the Department of Energy has long provided spacecraft with power supplies that use radioisotopes to generate electricity. A recent model, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, is used by Curiosity.
Idaho National Laboratory’s work on Radioisotope Power Systems:
Describes an empirical example of a highly integrated quality assurance function encompassing the Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) program at the Idaho National Laboratory. Case data represents multiple campaigns including the Pluto/New Horizons mission, the Mars Science Laboratory mission in progress, and other related projects.
Brief historical overview and summary of ongoing work; paragraph on Curiosity’s Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator on page 4 of the 12-page PDF file from Idaho National Laboratory.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s work on Radioisotope Power Systems:
“Annual Technical Progress Report of Radioisotope Power Systems Materials Production and Technology Program Tasks for
Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators don’t use neutron chain reactions to produce electricity the way a nuclear power plant does; they use a radioactive material with a relatively short half-life so they gradually run down. Still, any possible accident during the launch of a radioactive substance needs to be prepared for, and is. The following reports from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory describe these preparations for such launches in general and the launch of Curiosity’s generator in particular.
Brief article on p. 4 (6 of 32 in the PDF version) describes how a radiological emergency preparedness system designed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory monitored Curiosity’s launch last November in case the unlikely event of an accident occurred.
The National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory provides critical information during hazardous airborne releases as part of an integrated national preparedness and response strategy. The center also is required to be on alert for potential accidents during NASA spacecraft launches involving radiological sources, such as the successful Cassini (1997) and Pluto New Horizons (2006) launches, and the Mars Science Laboratory launch scheduled 2011.
Mentions NARAC’s role in supporting contingency planning for NASA’s launches involving radioactive material.
National Security Technologies, LLC for NNSA
Slides (including nos. 15-18) mention or illustrate Mars missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory; Advance Launch Support Groups serve at all NASA launches of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators.
Curiosity was originally intended for launch in 2009. The following items describe contingency planning for that launch, which was scheduled for the 21-day window beginning on September 15 of that year.
From National Security Technologies, LLC:
2008 Apr 16 (11th International Conference on Radiation Shielding (ICRS-11) and the 15th Topical Meeting of the Radiation Protection and Shielding Division (RPSD-2008) of the American Nuclear Society)
From Sandia National Laboratories:
Use of the same type of integrated risk assessment for sodium-cooled fast reactors as was done at Sandia National Laboratories for Mars Science Laboratory source terms.
There are also standard methods for safely transporting radioactive materials on Earth, including those used for Curiosity’s Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.
The waiver is to be used to support a limited number of shipments of fuel for the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) Project in support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. Under the waiver, an inventory of existing national security PCVs will be converted to standard PCVs. This report documents the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory review of the waiver request.
If you’re going to check for signs of life native to Mars, you don’t want to mess things up by accidentally bringing life from Earth there with you. The authors of the following report, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and DoE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, conclude that “validated state-of-the-art molecular techniques, such as DNA microarrays, can be utilized in parallel with classical culture based methods to further describe the cleanliness of spacecraft surfaces” with the aim of avoiding transfer of terrestrial microorganisms to Mars or other destinations.
Like many such efforts, Curiosity is not an isolated project, but is one in a stream of ideas for planetary exploration. As present explorations are under way, others are being designed for the future. These two reports, from Idaho National Laboratory with its collaborators and from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, describe two ideas under consideration.
Concept for future Mars probes.