NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has excited the imaginations of geeks worldwide since it touched down on Mars Aug. 5, is powered with a sort of nuclear battery.
That energy source is fueled by Russian plutonium, according to a report from slate.com. The specific type of plutonium in the rover, known as plutonium-238, has been used in NASA missions for decades.
It provided energy for the Apollo missions to the moon, the Viking missions to Mars, and several satellites to the outer solar system.
Nuclear power, in general, has fueled NASA satellites and capsules since 1969.
But because the United States’ stock of plutonium-238 has been depleted, the stuff fueling the compact car-sized Mars rover comes from Russia, according to slate.com.
The United States quit making plutonium in the late 1980s, after it became apparent that both sides had stockpiled enough warheads to destroy civilization. At first, NASA was able to draw on the supply of plutonium-238 … but that soon ran out. So it turned to Russia. The first shipment from the Russian plant arrived in the 1990s, and to date, NASA has received about 70 to 90 pounds of plutonium. A few pounds of Stalin’s finest plutonium-238 hitched a ride to Mars on the back of Curiosity.
NASA did not immediately respond to an inquiry on the source of the plutonium in Curiosity.