CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- A piece of technology, designed and built here in Idaho, is on a rocket to Mars.
An Atlas Five Rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Saturday morning, taking with it the most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to Mars, the 'Curiosity' Rover. It's a 2,000 pound, six-wheel machine that can detect signs of life. It's been called a rover on steroids.
"We're choosing to make the rovers bigger and bigger because we want to cover more ground," said Jessica Samuels, a surface systems engineer at NASA. "We want to be able to put an arm out and drill a rock."
When the rover is drilling into rocks, or exploring the Gale Crater, every bit of power will be coming from a plutonium battery made at the Idaho National Laboratory.
"The INL has been working on this project since the summer of 2003," said Stephen Johnson, the INL director of the division that made the battery. "So, it was kind of the culmination of over eight years of effort. It was very satisfying watching it take off."
Johnson was in Florida Saturday for the launch. He said his team was incredibly proud as they watched their creation launch into space.
"It actually was quite exciting," said Johnson. "At least one member of the crew cried as they saw it go."
Johnson said that pride should extend to all Idahoans.
"We're thought of as somebody you don't need to worry about," said Johnson. "We're going to deliver the product, and get it there, and get the job done."
He has no worries about the INL's creation working perfectly once it arrives at the Red Planet.
"It's gonna go, and it's gonna go for years," said Johnson.
This is the second nuclear battery the INL has produced for a NASA mission. The first is on its way to Pluto, which is about nine-and-a-half years away. When compared to the nine month trip to Mars, Johnson called waiting for the rocket to arrive on the Red Planet, "almost instant gratification."