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INL prepares for NASA Mars Rover 'Curiosity' landing

By By Caleb James, Reporter
Published On: Aug 05 2012 07:03:29 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 06 2012 10:28:06 AM CDT

Caleb James reports.

IDAHO NATN'L LAB, Idaho -

After months of flight through dark and empty space, NASA Mars rover Curiosity will hopefully land on the Martian surface around 11:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Once on land, Curiosity will rely on a battery that runs on fuel developed by scientists right here in eastern Idaho.

The development of the nuclear fuel for the battery inside Curiosity took 6 years of dedicated work at the Idaho National Lab's Materials and Fuels Complex.

On Sunday night, those scientists will gather to listen live to the landing NASA calls the "7 Minutes of Terror."

"Each of us work stress in our own different ways," said INL Radioisotope Power Systems manager Kelly Lively.

She said the folks who developed the fuel to power Curiosity on the Martian surface have waited 6 years for the moment the capsule containing the Mini-Cooper-sized rover finally lands.

Curiosity will enter the Martian atmosphere at about 5.9 kilometers per second. It's incredibly fast considering the precise and specific landing required to keep the rover intact.

"If it doesn't land, and it crashes on the surface of Mars, it's over," said Lively.

Lively and the hundreds of INL scientists who've worked on Curiosity's fuel source over the past 6 years will likely be holding their collective breath on Sunday night. But she said nothing can erase her memories of watching her team at work.

"It was so exciting to have my hands on and be involved in every step," said Lively. "I have to say, it's kind of like having your children experience things for the first time."

Lively's team became quite a family during the years it took to develop the fuel inside Curiosity's battery.

On our station's first visit to the Space Battery Center, we noticed a very sophisticated piece of equipment outside the building on the site.

On closer inspection, we realized it was an outdoor grill.

We asked INL Space Nuclear Systems and Technologies director Dr. Stephen Johnson about it:

"One of the better thousand dollars we spent on the program actually," he said, jokingly. "It was a very worthwhile investment in terms of a piece of moral boosting equipment."

On Sunday night, the folks who worked on the fuel for the space battery inside Curiosity will gather together for food again, and listen live to the landing at the Shilo Inn in Idaho Falls.

The reaction to that landing will air on the Local News 8 morning news on Monday.

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