NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, an enabling capability for NASA crewed missions to Mars.
The partnership, called the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program, aims to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027.
Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts. This is a key component for human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon to Mars Objectives.
Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.
Under the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine to be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA will lead the overall program including rocket systems integration and procurement, approvals, scheduling, and security, cover safety and liability, and ensure overall assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft. NASA and DARPA will collaborate on assembly of the engine before the in-space demonstration as early as 2027.
This is not the first time NASA and DARPA have collaborated on a project. In the past, they have worked together on in-space servicing and the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time. The last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests conducted by the United States occurred more than 50 years ago under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.
“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars,” said Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director, DARPA.
NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and industry are also developing a nuclear power system that could be used to power a future lunar base, as well as deep space exploration missions. This partnership between NASA and DARPA is a major step in advancing space technology and achieving the goal of sending humans to Mars_