The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded contracts for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program’s first phase. DRACO’s goal is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system to power a spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit.
According to DARPA, General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin were selected due to their ability to develop and deploy advanced systems for reactors, propulsion, and spacecraft. “Rapid maneuver” for military systems is of particular importance, which is considered to be difficult in space using current conventional systems. NTP uses a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before expelling the propellant through a nozzle to produce thrust. Compared to conventional space propulsion technologies, NTP has a high thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two-to-five times greater specific impulse than chemical propulsion.
“This combination would give a DRACO spacecraft greater agility to implement the Department of Defense’s core tenet of rapid maneuver in cislunar space (between the Earth and moon),” DARPA said.
Each company will pursue different paths during the first phase of the program, which will have two tracks lasting 18 months. Track A – to be performed by General Atomics – includes the preliminary design of the nuclear thermal propulsion reactor, along with the propulsion subsystem. Track B – performed independently by Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin – will design an “operational system spacecraft concept” to meet future mission objectives, including a demonstration system.
“Nuclear thermal propulsion is a transformative technology that will dramatically change the way spacecraft will operate, increasing agility and allowing more efficient travel to Mars and beyond in far less time than conventional propulsion systems,” Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin Space’s manager of Human Exploration Advanced Programs, said in a statement to CNBC. “A lot of work was done on nuclear propulsion in previous decades and we’ll leverage that expertise as we combine it with modern digital engineering modern spacecraft design and creativity to advance this new capability.”