"Good news, I may have a solution to my heating problem. Bad news, it involves me digging up the radioisotope thermoelectric generator."
So proclaims fictional botanist Mark Watney, aka Matt Damon, in the 2015 film The Martian before he pushes play on "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer. Watney, viewers may recall, was stranded on the very cold planet with only his wits and limited equipment to survive.
Despite the sci-fi premise, that particular piece of equipment—the RTG—is real, but one would not really want to use an RTG to stay warm, says Jackie Lopez-Barlow, manager of Los Alamos National Laboratory's RTG program, given that it's radioactive. Still, she was happy when she saw it in the film. "I said, 'that's ours.'"
Lopez-Barlow was recently featured in LANL's new seven-episode limited series podcast, Mars Technica, which explores the science and technical equipment in play for NASA's 2020 Perseverance Rover mission, and the scientists behind the gear. That spacecraft set off at the end of July for Mars, where it will drill and collect samples of Martian rock and soil for future analysis to examine signs of past life on Mars and perform various tests to determine habitability for future astronauts.
The RTG basically acts as a nuclear battery, using heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 to generate electricity. NASA has been using RTGs to power space vehicles since the early 1960s as a long-lasting power source, given that solar power isn't always reliable when one is far from the sun or in environments with dust storms.
LANL is one of three national labs involved in creating these power sources, along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Idaho National Laboratory. At LANL, engineers are responsible for taking the plutonium-238 isotope dioxide, making a ceramic pellet and encapsulating it in a iridium shell, at which point it is known as a fuel clad (you can hear a longer explanation of this process in the Department of Energy's own podcast, Direct Current).
Needless to say, this is hard science, a field Lopez-Barlow came to through art. She grew up in Abiquiu where her mother worked for Georgia O'Keeffe. As a result, she says, "I was always around art," both in O'Keeffe's home where her mother had her office and at museums around the country where her mother would visit to meet with conservators. Through that experience, Lopez-Barlow was exposed to the museums' laboratories, including one at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
"I remember this one instance when they were working on one of [Edward] Degas' ballerina statues—they were cleaning the tutu [and] I just fell in love with how they were doing it," Lopez-Barlow tells SFR. "They were explaining the process; it was just so awesome. That really got me interested in chemistry at that point and it kind of just evolved after that."
As a freshman in 2003 at the University of New Mexico studying chemical engineering, Lopez-Barlow interned at LANL, and later became a staff member in 2007. She worked on a variety of projects over the years but, ultimately, "my boss decided my skills were "very appropriately geared toward one of the space missions we were working on." That was in 2011, and she has worked on the space program since then.
"I'm constantly learning," she says, "and I think that's one of the things I love about this job is how much we learn. It takes so many disciplines to be able to make this come true and make a mission a reality. You're working with material scientists, you're working with electrical engineers, you're working with mechanical engineers, space astrophysics…so what's been really interesting to me is exactly how do you decide when to launch it, where to launch it from, how does that all work together? Literally, the planets have to align."
In addition to exploring RTGs, the Mars Technica podcast also devotes an episode to the SuperCam, the instrument that will both analyze the minerals and chemistry of Mars' soil and record sounds from the surface of the planet, and talks to members of LANL's SuperCam team. So far, five of the seven episodes have aired, all of which provide a behind-the-scenes look at the Perseverance mission and the search for ancient life on Mars.
As for the mission itself, the spacecraft is scheduled to reach the Red Planet in February of next year, at which point we will presumably learn more. I'm adding that prospect to the list of things I'm looking forward to in 2021. In the meantime, Mars Technica provides a welcome and heady respite from thinking about COVID-19 and politics as we thankfully move toward the end of this year.
LANL's new limited series seven-episode Mars Technica podcast can be found on all the usual podcast streaming spots, as well as https://www.lanl.gov/newsroom/podcasts/