Washington, D.C. – Today, NASA announced that a team led by Zeno Power, a developer of commercial radioisotope power systems (RPS), has been awarded a $15 million Tipping Point award to develop an americium-241 (Am-241) radioisotope Stirling generator (RSG) for lunar surface missions. The team for the program, called Harmonia, includes Blue Origin, Intuitive Machines Inc. (Nasdaq: LUNR, LUNRW), NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Marshall Flight Center, Sunpower Inc., and the University of Dayton Research Institute.
Operations during the two-week lunar night and in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) are a challenge due to the extreme conditions in these environments. The RSG developed through this Tipping Point initiative could enable lunar assets to survive and operate during the lunar night – extending mission durations from two weeks to several years. It could also enable long-duration exploration of scientifically important PSRs located at the lunar south pole. Harmonia’s goal is to develop flight-ready technology for a 2027 lunar surface demonstration.
Building on decades of NASA Stirling RPS research, Zeno and Blue Origin will collaborate with NASA Glenn Research Center to scale and optimize the integration of Stirling converters into a novel RSG design. The optimized RSG will increase the system efficiency three times as compared to legacy radioisotope power systems – yielding state-of-the-art RSG technology for broad use by NASA and commercial space customers.
NASA’s Artemis missions are intended to usher in the next era of human space exploration, planetary science, and international cooperation. To operate in the harsh environment, lunar missions need a reliable long-duration energy source such as radioisotope energy. Harmonia could enable NASA and its partners to establish a sustainable lunar presence with robots and astronaut crews.
“Project Harmonia will provide the technology to transform the Moon from a location darkened by night and shadow to one enlightened by science and exploration, ultimately for the good of the nation and humankind,” said Tyler Bernstein, CEO and Co-Founder of Zeno Power. “Zeno is excited to work with these industry leaders to bring both americium-241 and Stirling conversion technologies to the lunar surface for the first time.”
An RPS is a compact power source that converts heat generated by the decay of radioisotopes into a constant supply of clean energy. RPSs for space applications have historically been powered by plutonium-238 from the U.S. Department of Energy, with a fuel supply chain sufficient to power NASA’s marquee missions. Using materials science and nuclear fuel manufacturing innovations, Zeno’s novel design provides additional fuel options by using alternative radioisotopes that are currently categorized as nuclear waste. Americium-241 is a long-lived isotope with favorable thermal and radiation profiles that can complement current plutonium-238 based RPSs and enable not-yet-pursued mission classes.
“This project can demonstrate how broadly applicable this fuel source could be in establishing a plugand-play interoperable system, whether that be for a lunar lander, exploration rover, or crewed activities,” said Zeno Vice President of Engineering Lindsey Boles. “Given the predictable thermal output and long half-life of this isotope, our systems can be used sustainably on the lunar surface for decades.”
Through the Tipping Point solicitation, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate seeks private industry-developed space technologies that can foster the development of commercial space capabilities and benefit future NASA missions. The program furthers the technological readiness of awardees to provide services for new government and commercial purposes, including Earth-bound applications, bringing them from the laboratory to initial demonstration.
Zeno Power is a leading developer of commercial radioisotope power systems. The company, founded in 2018, has offices in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Wash., and recently signed a $30 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense to demonstrate a flight-ready radioisotope powered satellite by 2025.