NASA has embarked on a new era of human space exploration called Project Harmonia, with a pivotal goal of re-establishing a human presence on the moon, a celestial body last visited by humans over 50 years ago. With the intention of creating a sustained lunar presence, NASA has identified the need for robust and durable energy sources capable of withstanding the lunar conditions, including the challenges of the two-week-long lunar night and the permanently shadowed regions on the moon.
NASA’s Investment in Zeno Power
According to NASA’s recent release, Zeno Power, an innovative startup born from the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center, is among the 11 American companies handpicked for their groundbreaking initiatives. Zeno Power will be receiving a significant amount of $15 million from NASA to spearhead the development of a space-ready radioisotope Stirling generator, designed to be fueled by americium-241, a viable alternative to traditional plutonium-238-based RPSs. This technology is anticipated to play a pivotal role during NASA’s Artemis missions.
Partnering for Progress: The Harmonia Team
- Zeno Power
- Blue Origin
- Intuitive Machines
- NASA Glenn Research Center
- NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
- Sunpower Inc.
- University of Dayton Research Institute
Tyler Bernstein, co-founder, and CEO of Zeno Power, articulated the transformative potential of the project: “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.” Bernstein co-founded the company alongside Vanderbilt alumni, Chief Technology Officer Jake Matthews, MS’18, and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Segal, BS’19.
Revolutionizing Power Sources
Traditionally, radioisotope power systems (RPSs) utilized a thermoelectric generator. However, Zeno Power proposes a shift, introducing a Stirling engine to convert heat into electricity. Their innovative approach incorporates radioisotopes, specifically americium-241, previously categorized as nuclear waste. This long-lived isotope boasts favorable thermal and radiation profiles, presenting an alternative to the currently used plutonium-238.
NASA and Zeno: The Potential for Future Exploration
NASA’s faith in these partnerships, including Zeno Power, is evident in their words and investments. “Partnering with the commercial space industry lets us at NASA harness the strength of American innovation and ingenuity,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The technologies that NASA is investing in today have the potential to be the foundation of future exploration.” The selected companies, under NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Tipping Point program, must establish the probability of maturing the technology and bringing it to market for both government and commercial applications.
Key Milestones for Zeno Power
- 2018: Zeno Power was founded under the Wond’ry’s Founder Program with guidance from their Vanderbilt faculty mentor Steven Krahn, a professor specializing in nuclear environmental engineering.
- 2022: The company participated in Wond’ry’s startup incubator, Launch.
- 2022: Zeno raised $20 million in Series A funding.
- 2025 Target: With the backing of a $30 million project grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Zeno aims to design and build the first commercially developed RPS-powered satellite.
Rekindling Lunar Aspirations
The partnership between NASA and Zeno Power, supported by Vanderbilt University, reiterates the renewed interest and emphasis on understanding and exploring our closest celestial neighbor. This collaboration not only showcases technological advancements but also highlights the potential of interdisciplinary efforts in making leaps in space exploration.
Why the Moon Matters
The moon, being our neighbor in space and all, has some super important secrets to spill about how our solar system came into being, how Earth evolved, and maybe even some mind-blowing stuff about the cosmos. If we can wrap our heads around the moon’s intricate geology and conditions, it might just be our stepping stone for more daring adventures in outer space, like having humans actually set foot on Mars and who knows what else!
NASA’s brazen aspirations, dove-tailed with the forward-thinking mindset of Zeno Power and Vanderbilt University, certainly allude to a bright horizon for lunar adventures. The moon, once a far-off dream, is on the cusp of experiencing a renaissance in scientific exploration that will enrich not only America but all of mankind. To find out more about NASA’s upcoming exploratory endeavors, visit NASA’s official website.