Radioisotope Power Systems

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About the Radioisotope Power Systems Program

The Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) Program is a technology development effort, managed by NASA, that is strategically investing in nuclear power technologies that would maintain NASA's current space science capabilities and could enable future space exploration missions. NASA, working in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funds research and development efforts on Stirling technology for a potential Stirling Radioisotope Generator (SRG), and new thermoelectric materials, such as skutterudite-based thermoelectric couples that could be integrated into the Mult-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) to create an enhanced MMRTG (eMMRTG). NASA also works with DOE to maintain the capability to produce MMRTGs; the first MMRTG to be launched, now provides electrical power and heat for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.The MMRTG has been baselined for use as the power source for the Mars 2020 mission as well.

The RPS program is designed to enable more capable future space missions by supporting the development of advanced technologies for power conversion using heat from the natural decay of plutonium-238. DOE owns and produces the nuclear fuel and the nuclear power systems, and directly manages the design and development of all radioisotope power systems used by NASA.


Program Organization

The NASA RPS Program is a multi-center effort among the NASA Glenn Research Center, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory(JPL), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The program reports to the leadership of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (Planetary Science Division) at NASA Headquarters. The Program is managed by GRC on behalf of NASA Headquarters.

GRC has decades of experience developing the Stirling converter technology that could be utilized by a potential future SRG. As part of its program management responsibilities, GRC leads program planning, financial tracking, and scheduling activities. JPL provides support for program planning and mission analysis, as well as continued research and development of improved thermoelectric materials that could be employed by future radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs. JPL also supports launch approval engineering, which is concerned with engineering, communications, and regulatory issues related to the safe launch of radioisotope power systems. APL supports the RPS program with mission and systems analyses.

Missions supporting this program: