In the high bay of the RTG storage facility (RTGF) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Department of Energy workers guide the mesh container enclosing the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission as it is lifted by a crane. The container, known as the "gorilla cage," protects the MMRTG during transport and allows any excess heat generated to dissipate into the air. The cage is being removed from around the MMRTG following it return to the RTGF from a fit check on MSL's Curiosity rover in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).
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. MSL's components include a compact car-sized rover, Curiosity, which 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 targeted 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/Troy Cryder