June 24, 2024

NASA selects companies to advance lunar power and other technologies

WASHINGTON – Companies working on nuclear and solar power systems for the moon are among the winners of NASA awards to advance their technologies for use by NASA and future commercial customers.

NASA announced July 25 the selection of 11 awards through its Tipping Point program for space technology development. The awards, with a combined value of $150 million, are designed to advance promising technologies to the point where they are ready for flight.

“By creating new opportunities for streamlining awards, we hope to push critical technologies across the finish line so they can be used in future missions,” Prasun Desai, NASA’s acting associate administrator for space technology, said in a statement. “These innovative partnerships will help advance capabilities that will enable sustainable lunar exploration.”

Among the winners is Astrobotic Technology, which received a $34.6 million Tipping Point prize to develop technologies for its LunaGrid project to produce and supply solar power to spacecraft on the lunar surface. The award covers the development of one of the company’s CubeRovers, the size of six-unit cubes, which travel one kilometer from a lander, unspooling cable. The lander’s solar arrays will then transmit one kilowatt of power to the rover.

“This is the first small-scale demonstration of power transmission on the surface of the moon,” John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, said in an interview of the effort, which the company calls LunaGrid-Lite.

LunaGrid-Lite will be focused on developing and demonstrating enabling technologies, such as cable deployment and high-voltage power transmission, that require conversion between direct current and alternating current.

“It’s harder in space to even do something that sounds as simple as DC-to-AC conversion,” he said. “In a vacuum environment the DC-to-AC conversion doesn’t work with typical technologies used here on Earth, so we basically had to reinvent the wheel on how to do that.”

Astrobotic is separately developing other technologies needed for LunaGrid, such as Vertical Solar Array Technology (VSAT) which is optimized to produce power at the polar regions of the moon where the sun is always low on the horizon. The LunaGrid-Lite project will not use VSAT systems but instead the solar arrays on the lander.

“Work and awards are aligned with basically every part of this,” Thornton said of LunaGrid, including wireless charging. “The pieces and parts are coming together. So, this is about creating that on a small scale, scaling it up to a larger scale and then actually deploying it on the surface.”

Zeno Power won a $15 million Tipping Point award to develop a radioisotope Stirling engine that could generate power for future lunar missions at night and in permanently shadowed craters. Credit: Zeno Point

A team led by Zeno Power won a $15 million Tipping Point prize to develop a radioisotope power system for use on lunar missions, enabling such missions to continue operations through the two-week lunar night. The effort includes Project Harmonia as partners Blue Origin, Intuitive Machines, Sunpower Inc., the University of Dayton Research Institute and NASA’s Glenn Research Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center.

The project seeks to demonstrate a technology called a Stirling radioisotope generator that uses a Stirling engine, rather than a thermocouple, to convert the heat of radioactive decay into electrical power. NASA has worked on Stirling engines for radioisotope power systems, which promise higher efficiency, but budget issues have stalled those efforts within the agency.

“We will be building on much of this work that has been done by NASA Glenn and commercial entities and, for the first time, the Stirling engine will be matched with a radioisotope source for use in space,” said Tyler Bernstein, chief executive and co-founder of Zeno Power, in an interview.

The system will also demonstrate the use of another isotope, americium-241, which is more readily available than the plutonium-238 typically used in radioisotope power systems. Americium produces less power per gram than plutonium, requires more fuel to produce the same power, but is commercially available.

The project will produce a power system that would be ready to fly on a future mission. Bernstein said it could be the first use of americium-241 in a power system in space and the first flight of a Stirling radioisotope generator.

Zeno Power won a contract with the United States Air Force in May to test a radioisotope power source on a satellite. That contract uses a different technology, thermocouples, as well as a different isotope, strontium-90. Despite the differences, he said, “there are a lot of synergies in terms of technology development, but also on the regulatory side and the facility side.”

The project gets its name from the Greek goddess together. “We’re looking at compromise on the surface of the moon: how we can bring different entities together and have sustainability, with systems that function for years rather than days,” he said.

Other winners include Blue Origin, which received a $34.7 million award for the ability to produce solar cells using lunar materials. That will support progress on its Blue Alchemist project that the company unveiled earlier this year, where it used lunar simulation material to produce solar cells in an earth laboratory. Redwire won a $12.9 million award to also show that it uses lunar regolith to create infrastructure on the moon.

United Launch Alliance won a $25 million award to advance hypersonic accelerometer technology tested on the LOFTID project last year for possible use in recovering the engine section of its Vulcan booster. Varda Space Industries, a startup focused on space manufacturing, won a $1.9 million prize for mature technologies used as a heat shield on its re-entry capsules.

Other winners Includes Big Metal Additive for hybrid metal additive manufacturing, Freedom Photonics for lidar instrumentation, Lockheed Martin for in-space assembly technologies, ProtoInnovations for mobility control software and Psionic for lidar navigation and terrain mapping system for use on lunar landings.

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