ORNL scientists make fuel part for NASA Mars Space Laboratory

12:21 AM, Aug 13, 2012   |    comments
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A group of East Tennessee scientists play a big role in NASA's current mission to Mars. They developed some of the spacecraft's small, but crucial, parts that make the machine's power supply possible. Less than a week ago, the Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet, eight months after lifted off from Cape Canaveral, FL.

"So many people put years of their lives and their careers on the line for the success of of this mission," said Evan Ohriner. He has extra-terrestrial curiosity about the man-made machine named "Curiosity"

"Finding out about other worlds. What Mars is like and what Mars might have been like billions of years ago," explained Ohriner.

The "Curiosity" rover is part of the space organization's $2.5 billion Mars Space Laboratory. Its mission is to roam the planet's surface and help answer an elusive question: has there ever been life on Mars?

If "Curiosity" is to break ground in space exploration, it must also literally break ground. A robotic arm will drill into the planet's surface to analyze rock and soil samples over the next two years. And, Ohrinder has a hand in making the rover run.

"We make the components called the clad vents set, which is the primary container for the fuel," Ohriner said.

The assembly line for "Curiosity's" power-supply starts with the Department of Energy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Ohriner is a scientist with the Materials Processing group that makes fuel capsules from a rare metal called Iridium. It's heavier than steel.

"It's used because of its high melting temperature. It's good strength. It's ability to resist oxidation at high temperatures and air," explained Ohriner.

Production happens among 60 machines that compress, flatten, cut and mold the Iridium powder in to solid containers. It takes about 18 months to finish the containers. Then they're shipped from ORNL in East Tennessee to the National Lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

"Where fuel is loaded in to them. Then from there sent to Idaho National Laboratory where the generator is assembled," said Ohriner.

Scientists fill the capsules with pellets of Plutonium 238. Radioactive decay creates "Curiosity's" 110 watt life-line of fuel.

"This is the only way we know to have enough power to run experiments of this magnitude," said Ohriner's ORNL colleague, John King.

King said their work ensures safety, "This has very rigid standards we have to maintain because of nuclear properties."

On August 6, 2012, a NASA television broadcast peaked the world's "curiosity" with their own. The rover beamed back the first color images of the Martian terrain.
Ohriner said he got up at 1:30 a.m. and tuned in, "It was just thrilling to see it work out so wonderfully."

This mission to Mars is a real-life motion-picture produced by science from Tennessee and beyond.

You can follow the Mars Science Laboratory mission, here, on its NASA website.

Ohriner said NASA will be making decisions on future missions within the next month. He said he expects ORNL to also play a role in making fuel capsules for those. The Material Products group has also made components for several other NASA missions going back to the Voyager satellites in the 1970s.

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