Zeno Power wins contract to build a radioisotope-powered satellite for the USAF

May 23, 2023, 7:01AMNuclear News
Rendering of a radioisotope-powered satellite. (Image: Zeno Power Systems)

Zeno Power Systems was awarded a $30 million contract to build a radioisotope-powered satellite for the U.S. Air Force by 2025. According to a SpaceNews article announcing the development and quoting company cofounder and chief executive officer Tyler Bernstein, the four-year contract is a “strategic funding increase” (STRATFI) agreement that provides $15 million in government funds, matched by $15 million from private investors.

Contracting: Zeno Power has developed radioisotope power systems, including a commercial RPS concept for small satellites, and according to the SpaceNews article, Bernstein expects the system to be approved for launch in 2025.

The company has received several small business innovation research (SBIR) contracts from the Air Force Research Laboratory since 2019. The STRATFI agreement on which the latest contract announcement was based was signed in August 2022.

Zeno Power was founded in 2018, and is based in Seattle, Wash., and in the Washington, D.C., area. To fund its share of the project, the company will draw from its $20 million in Series A venture capital raised last year.

The tech: Unlike NASA’s plutonium-238 fueled RPSs that support science missions, Zeno’s system would use a “strontium isotope with a novel design that results in a lighter-weight heat source.” While in the past the air force has used strontium-90 as a power source, “its applications were limited due to its large mass and low efficiency,” according to the announcement. Bernstein told SpaceNews the company is exploring the use of other isotopes in the future.

The radioisotope heat source would be paired with a solid-state thermoelectric generator to provide a consistent power source and lightweight maneuverability. According to the article, the first demonstration of the heat source for Zeno’s RPS will take place this summer at a Department of Energy laboratory.

Launch expectations: A 2019 executive order by the Trump administration created a three-tier launch approval process for space nuclear systems based on the amount of radioactive material on board and the likelihood and degree of radiation exposure in the event of an accident.

According to the announcement, Zeno is pursuing launch approval as a tier-one mission, which means it is a nonfission device that also falls under stated limits for the total amount of radioactive material on board and for radiation exposure risk.

Spacecraft in the first two tiers can be approved by their sponsoring agency and an interagency panel, and only third-tier missions—including launches of “spacecraft containing nuclear fission systems and other devices with a potential for criticality when such systems utilize any nuclear fuel other than low-enriched uranium”—require presidential authorization.

Bernstein told SpaceNews that Zeno’s payload review application was accepted for review by the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year.

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