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Perseverance rover, powered by ORNL technology, to touch down on Mars

On Feb. 18, the world will be watching as NASA’s Perseverance rover makes its final descent into Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars. Mars 2020 is the first NASA mission that uses plutonium-238 produced at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Pu-238 — encased in iridium-alloy cladding and insulated by carbon-bonded carbon fiber — is at the heart of the general purpose heat source module that fuels Perseverance’s multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator. As the material decays, the heat released is converted to electricity, charging the rover’s batteries and powering the onboard advanced imaging and sensor systems.

Ahead of the landing, three ORNL scientists will answer questions about the technologies they worked on for the Mars 2020 mission in a livestreamed event hosted by DOE at 3 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Feb. 16.

The moderated discussion will feature ORNL’s Nidia Gallego, senior staff scientist in the Carbon and Composites group; George Ulrich, Radioisotope Power Systems program manager and Alloy Behavior and Design group leader; and Robert Wham, Pu-238 Supply Program manager, who will discuss the lab’s contributions to the mission.

The event is intended for high school and college students interested in STEM careers and is open to the public. Learn more about DOE’s STEM Rising initiative.

The Perseverance mission continues a 50-year legacy of the lab’s contributions to deep-space exploration, including technologies for the Voyager I and II, Cassini and Mars Curiosity missions. ORNL-produced Pu-238 also will power NASA’s 2027 Dragonfly mission to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Read more about the landing timeline and access educational resources from NASA’s Mars 2020 website.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit