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To the moon and beyond

UDRI will support the development of next generation power systems for space

UDRI’s Space Power Systems team will receive a $2.8 million share of a new NASA award for the development of plug-and-play power systems for lunar missions.

Washington, D.C.-based Zeno Power, along with UDRI and a team of partners that includes Blue Origin, NASA Glenn Research Center, Westinghouse, and others, were awarded a $15 million NASA Tipping Point contract to develop radioisotope Stirling power generators designed to support extended lunar missions as early as 2027. UDRI researchers will design, build and test the heat source for the generator.

Because the surface of the moon experiences extreme cold during two-week-long lunar nights, as well as in permanently shadowed areas, NASA will need a reliable power source that will enable long-term operations under harsh conditions.

Zeno, which develops commercial radioisotope power systems, and partners will develop such a system that will use americium-241 as a heat source material rather than plutonium-238, which has historically been used in radioisotope power systems for NASA missions.

Radioisotope power systems convert heat generated by the decay of radioisotopes into clean energy, said Chad Barklay, Group Leader for Advanced High-Temperature Materials in UDRI’s Power & Energy division. The use of americium-241, a long-lived isotope, in a generator that uses highly efficient Stirling heat-conversion technology will enable the development of a compact power source suitable for missions that can last for years and allow travel to previously unexplored territories, such as the lunar south pole.

The power system’s compact size and design will allow it to be used interoperably on multiple equipment systems, such as rovers, telecommunication platforms and other systems. Additionally,  the plug-and-play architecture of the heat source enables astronauts to utilize it like a battery for cordless power tools, thus powering various pieces of equipment as needed.

Barklay and his team will design, fabricate and test an electrically heated version of the “guts” of the plug-and-play heat source, he said. “We will design it from scratch, leveraging knowledge and experience from legacy designs and design cues from other Zeno projects.”

The success of the project, dubbed “Harmonia,” opens up a new realm of space exploration for NASA and commercial space customers, Barklay added.

July 25, 2023


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