Blackfoot man's INL team plays role in NASA's Mars mission

IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY — A Blackfoot man is among those at the Idaho National Laboratory who have a role in NASA's mission to Mars later this year.
Stephen Johnson is director of Space Nuclear Systems and Technologies Division at the INL. His team is responsible for the assembly, testing and certification of a battery which will be used to charge the rover Curiousity when it lands on Mars in August of 2012. Launch of the Mars Science Laboratory from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is scheduled on Nov. 25.
On Wednesday Johnson conducted a tour of his facility for members of the media.
"We're probably not the largest program at the INL, but we're the funnest and we're the best," Johnson said.
"The power system we're involved in right now will be on the rover part of the Mars scientific mission," he noted. He pointed out that the rover, which weighs about a ton and is about the size of a Volkswagen, will have the capability to travel over a large part of its landing zone.
The power system INL has developed is about two-and-one-half feet high and two-and-one-half feet in diameter. The 100-pound battery consists of eight modules.
"Its essence is capturing the heat given off by the radioactive building block and turning that into electricity," Johnson said.
"After building it, we make certain it functions correctly," he said. Among the tests the battery undergoes are those which replicate the violent shaking of a rocket launch and the zero gravity vacuum of deep space.
"We're all about getting it done and getting it done right because we can't go up there and fix it," he added.
Johnson and his team of 50-70 scientists and technicians have been involved in similar projects before. They worked on components of a project which will bypass Pluto in 2015 and collect and send data until it is well beyond our solar system.
"The people here take a great deal of pride in their work," Johnson said of his team. "INL is one component. Everybody feels proud to be a part of it, but you are a team."
The federal government transferred the space battery facility to Idaho in 2002 after urban growth had brought people too close to its Ohio facility.