going dark

Houston space tech company secures $2.4M to collaborate on moon exploration innovation

NASA has invested $15 million to address a unique challenge of moon exploration. Photo courtesy of Zeno Power

For 14 days of the month, the moon goes dark, and if humans have any change of further exploring the moon or even residing on it, there's going to need to be an innovation that can help sustain life in the dark and cold that results from the lunar night.

Luckily, NASA is already on it. The organization just announced a $15 million Tipping Point initiative award to a project led by Washington, D.C-based Zeno Power. The goal is to create a Radioisotope Power System — the interoperable americium-241 (Am-241) radioisotope Sterling generator, to be exact — for lunar landers that ensures operation of lunar assets during the lunar night period as well as the moon's permanently shadowed regions.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines is collaborating on the project and has been designated approximately $2.4 million for its part in the project. According to a news release, the team's goal is to have the technology ready for a lunar surface demonstration by 2027.

“The ability to survive the lunar night is paramount to Intuitive Machines and the space exploration community,” Trent Martin, vice president of space systems at Intuitive Machines, says in the release. “NASA investing in mission longevity and the endurance of spacecraft paves the way for uninterrupted scientific exploration, enabling future robotic and human missions to unlock the mysteries of the lunar surface and propel humanity’s presence in space to new frontiers.”

During the lunar night cycle, parts of the moon reach -279 degrees Fahrenheit. If NASA is able to provide a solution to surviving the lunar night, the lunar missions could last longer than two Earth weeks — including allowing for missions to last for several years.

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is behind the Tipping Point solicitation. The Zeno Power-led team also includes NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Marshall Flight Center, Sunpower Inc., and the University of Dayton Research Institute.

Intuitive Machines, which went public earlier this year, has several other projects ongoing with NASA, including a satellite joint venture with KBR that announced up to $719 million in funding in April.

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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