NASA joins forces with DARPA on nuclear rocket program

NASA joins forces with DARPA on nuclear rocket program

An artist’s conception shows a nuclear powered demonstration rocket in space. (DARPA illustration)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has partnered with NASA on a project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear-powered rocket that could one day send astronauts to Mars.

DARPA had already been working with commercial partners, including Blue Origin, the space company created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, or USNC-Tech, on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile program. Cislunar Operations, also known as DRACO. USNC-Tech supported Blue Origin and another team led by Lockheed Martin during an initial round of DRACO design work.

Now, DARPA and NASA will work together on the next two rounds of the DRACO program, which require a commercial contractor to design and then build a rocket capable of carrying a General Atomics fission reactor safely into space for testing. The current plan calls for a demonstration in space in fiscal year 2027.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could travel to and from deep space faster than ever before, an important capability in preparing for human missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement today. press.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy noted that the space agency has had a “long history of collaboration with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as service in space.”

“Expanding our partnership with nuclear propulsion will help further NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars,” he said.

In a nuclear thermal rocket, or NTR, the engine’s reactor heats the propellant to extreme temperatures to produce thrust. DARPA says an NTR would have a thrust-to-weight ratio 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion systems and a specific impulse that is two to five times more efficient than traditional chemical propulsion systems in space.

“Because the NTR uses propellant more efficiently, it offers more aggressive trajectories and creative burn profiles to move heavy payload more quickly in the cislunar domain compared to current space-based propulsion methods,” said Tabitha Dobson, manager of the DARPA program for DRACO, in a press release.

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead the technical development of a nuclear heat engine that would be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA acts as the contracting authority for the development of the entire rocket and engine stage, including the reactor. The US Space Force has signaled its support for DRACO with the intention of providing the launch for the demonstration mission.

DARPA spokesman Randy Atkins said the contract for the next phase of the program will be awarded in March. “We cannot yet comment on who may or may not have bid on Phase 2,” he told GeekWire in an email.

DRACO is not the only program supporting the development of nuclear thermal propulsion systems. In partnership with Blue Origin and other companies, USNC-Tech won a $5 million contract from NASA and the Department of Energy in 2021 to work on a nuclear propulsion concept called the Power Adjusted Demonstration Mars Engine, or PADME.

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