Black and white image of a rover showing machinery.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, took this self portrait, which shows its Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) at center.

A legacy of exploration

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs, provide electrical power for spacecraft by converting the heat generated by the decay of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) fuel into electricity using devices called thermocouples. Since they have no moving parts that can fail or wear out, RTGs have historically been viewed as a highly reliable power option. Thermocouples have been used in RTGs for a total combined time of over 300 years, and a not a single thermocouple has ever ceased producing power.

Thermocouples are common in everyday items that must monitor or regulate their temperature, such as air conditioners, refrigerators and medical thermometers. The principle of a thermocouple involves two plates, each made of a different metal that conducts electricity. Joining these two plates to form a closed electrical circuit while keeping the two junctions at different temperatures produces an electric current. Each of these pairs of junctions forms an individual thermocouple. In an RTG, the radioisotope fuel heats one of these junctions while the other junction remains unheated and is cooled by the space environment or a planetary atmosphere.

Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator

MMRTG pull apart
Labeled pull-apart view showing the major components of the MMRTG, or Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. Image credit: NASA

The current RTG model is the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. It is based on the type of RTG flown previously on the two Viking landers and the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft (the SNAP-19 RTG). It is designed to be used in either the vacuum of space or within the atmosphere of a planet. The excess heat energy from an MMRTG can be used as a convenient and steady source of warmth to maintain proper operating temperatures for a spacecraft and its instruments in cold environments.

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