Nobody knows what secrets NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will uncover after it lands on the Red Planet.
About the size of a car, Curiosity will roam a crater, taking and analyzing samples that could uncover traces of life, water and other mysteries.
The electricity powering Curiosity's two-year mission traces back to eastern Idaho and a team at Idaho National Laboratory.
In simple terms, Curiosity runs, in part, on a $100 million nuclear battery developed at the lab, said Stephen Johnson, division director of Space Nuclear Systems and Technology.
The 2-foot-tall, 2-foot in diameter cylinder aboard Curiosity is packed with radioactive isotopes generating heat. That thermal energy is converted into the electricity fueling Curiosity's wheels, arms and other gadgets, as well as recharging its bank of lithium-ion batteries.
In technical terms, it's called a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.
"People call it a battery, but it's actually a power system because it doesn't need to be recharged," Johnson said. "It will run for decades."
A team of about 65 scientists and technicians spent six years developing, building and testing the power source. Six years of weekends at work, Christmas breaks away from family and pizzas delivered to the site will soon pay off, said Kelly Lively, who supervised the project as manger of the Radio Isotopes Power Systems Department.
"We give life to what we're sending for deep-space exploration," Lively said. "That we had a part in that, there's a tremendous amount of satisfaction."
The team also built the power system on the spacecraft heading to Pluto as part of NASA's New Horizons mission.
The team and the world will have to wait until 2015 for New Horizons to complete its nine-year trek to Pluto. That's a long time for the team to wait, Johnson said.
Luckily, after Curiosity launched in November, the team waited just nine months to find out whether the power system aboard the rover will be up to the task.
"It's closer to instant gratification," Johnson said.
The team handles the radioactive materials in an airtight chamber with sealed gloves and robot-like arms.
Fuel cells in the energy source are 1 inch tall and 1-inch diameter cylinders. Each puts out a mind-boggling 9,000 to 10,000 degrees of heat, shift supervisor Dave Hendricks said.
"It's incredible to know how much energy you have, that you are holding something that costs so much money that so many people are relying on," said Hendricks, who worked on both projects. "If it fails, the whole thing fails. To have that kind of responsibility is overwhelming, but it's also exciting."
The moment of truth for Curiosity and the team comes Sunday night.
Team members and some of their family will fill O'Callahan's bar at the Shilo Inn in Idaho Falls, hopefully to celebrate. They'll listen to an audio stream of the landing. The signal from Mars will take 14 excruciating minutes to reach Earth.
According to NASA, seven minutes will pass as the capsule holding Curiosity goes through a complicated landing sequence before setting the rover down (see box on Page A1). That makes for another seven nerve-wracking minutes before the world finds out whether Curiosity safely touched down or whether it exploded in an expensive rubble pile. NASA calls it the Seven Minutes of Terror.
Lively said team members will be on the edges of their barstools, ready to cut loose once word arrives that Curiosity -- and their baby, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator -- are safe and ready to get to work.
"It will be geeks gone wild at that point," Lively said.
Zach Kyle can be reached at 542-6746.