The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is working to develop a nuclear propulsion technology demonstrator. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program has set the goal of demonstrating a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit in 2025.
Current propulsion in the space domain limits maneuverability of on orbit spacecraft. Electric propulsion has a very low thrust to weight ratio and conventional chemical propulsion systems have very low propellent efficiency. The DRACO nuclear thermal propulsion system has the potential of providing the best of both worlds; efficiency closer to that of electric systems and the high thrust of chemical propulsion.
What is nuclear thermal propulsion and how does it work? Unsurprisingly, NASA can provide a brief explanation given below.
“Nuclear thermal propulsion technology provides high thrust and twice the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets. The system works by transferring heat from the reactor to a liquid propellant. That heat converts the liquid into a gas, which expands through a nozzle to provide thrust and propel a spacecraft.”¹
A functional NTP system would have huge impacts for every aspect of the space industry. The Department of Defense wants to see it developed for what they refer to as “rapid maneuver in cislunar space” but its applications for commercial space or for deep space exploration are huge. Transit time to Mars would be drastically decreased enabling safer transit for astronauts as well as justifying shorter duration missions to the red planet. The maneuverability could enable large scale space debris cleanup as well as massively stimulate the Cislunar economy. These are just a few of the benefits that NTP could provide to the space enterprise as a whole. Going even further, this could be a critical technology for the mining of near Earth asteroids and the transportation of that mined material.
The current contractors on the project are General Atomics working with the newly formed Sierra Space, as well as Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin. Not much information has been provided about the project but given the nature of it, that’s no big surprise. The importance of this type of technology however, is difficult to overstate and with the deadline of 2025 there will have to be rapid technology development. Any future updates will be shared on the site or on Instagram.