At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a forklift carries the protective mesh container, known as the "gorilla cage," enclosing the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission into the airlock of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF). The cage protects the MMRTG and allows any excess heat generated to dissipate into the air. In the PHSF, the MMRTG temporarily will be installed on the MSL rover, Curiosity, for a fit check but will be installed on the rover for launch at the pad.
The MMRTG will generate the power needed for the mission from the natural decay of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade form of the radioisotope. Heat given off by this natural decay will provide constant power through the day and night during all seasons. Curiosity, MSL's car-sized rover, has 10 science instruments designed to search for signs of life, including methane, and help determine if the gas is from a biological or geological source. Waste heat from the MMRTG will be circulated throughout the rover system to keep instruments, computers, mechanical devices and communications systems within their operating temperature ranges. Launch of MSL aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is planned for Nov. 25 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston