DARPA begins designing experimental DRACO vehicle

NASA collaborates on nuclear thermal rocket development

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is starting a major space exploration initiative in conjunction with NASA: the development of the world’s first in-orbit demonstration of a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine, the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO).

DRACO: leap in propulsion technology

Dr. Tabitha Dodson, the program manager for the DRACO program, explained that the project aims to provide a significant advancement in propulsion capabilities. “An NTR achieves high thrust similar to in-space chemical propulsion but is two-to-three-times more efficient,” she said. A successful demonstration could mean a significant improvement in our ability to explore space.

Advancing the NASA-DARPA collaboration

Earlier this year, DARPA and NASA cemented their partnership with a focus on the NTR engine. The primary goal is to improve the efficiency and speed of transporting material through the cislunar domain and, eventually, facilitating human missions to Mars.

Building on earlier nuclear thermal technology investments

The DRACO program is drawing on past advancements in nuclear thermal technology made under the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program. However, DRACO introduces a new fuel option that could mitigate some logistical challenges. DARPA has chosen to use high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.

Ensuring safety for in-orbit demonstrations

To ensure safety, DARPA will design the engine’s fission reactor to remain inactive until it reaches its designated orbit. This approach minimizes the risks associated with launching a nuclear-powered spacecraft.

Partnerships facilitating DRACO’s launch

The U.S. Space Force will provide the launch vehicle for the X-NTRV mission in 2027. Furthermore, the Department of Energy will supply the HALEU metal, which will be processed into fuel by the assigned performer, BWX Technologies (BWXT).

Specs of the DRACO project

  • The vehicle and its engine will be fabricated and designed by Lockheed Martin.
  • The NTR engine promises two-to-three times more efficiency than in-space chemical propulsion.
  • The project will leverage high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.
  • Safety measures will ensure the engine’s fission reactor stays turned off until it reaches orbit.
  • The U.S. Space Force will provide the launch vehicle for the mission in 2027.

Implications for the future of space exploration

The successful execution of the DRACO project could catalyze a sea change in space exploration. With its more efficient propulsion, the technology could enable more ambitious missions and speed up our exploration of the cosmos. This project exemplifies the potential of human ingenuity to extend our reach beyond our planetary confines and may bring a future with regular interplanetary travel within our grasp.


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