The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has awarded General Atomics a $ 22 million contract to develop a small nuclear reactor. It will be used for space propulsion as part of the Flexible Lunar Operations Project (Draco) demonstration rocket.
Draco project was created in 2020. Its purpose is to demonstrate nuclear thermal propulsion. We are talking about using a nuclear reactor to heat rocket fuel to create that very thrust. A year ago, the Darpa tactical technology department announced its intention to test a nuclear thermal propulsion system in circumlunar orbit by 2025. A nuclear missile could be launched in four years. Recall that the circumlunar orbit refers to the space between the Earth and its satellite.
Space systems now rely on electrical and chemical engines. However, Darpa experts are confident that other options are needed for future research beyond Earth’s orbit. A project presented a year ago notes that the Draco program aims to develop new nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) technology. According to the department, it “can provide a high specific thrust, similar to a chemical propulsion system, but with an efficiency up to five times higher.” Darpa noted that observing the lunar space will require “a breakthrough in propulsion technology.”
Draco will try to demonstrate an NTP system in orbit. How it works? A nuclear reactor heats fuel to extreme temperatures before ejecting the hot mass through a nozzle to create thrust.
NTP is “a step forward from conventional propulsion systems and will enable spacecraft to travel enormous distances quickly,” said Christina Beck, vice president of nuclear technology and materials for General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. She told SpaceNews that “maneuverable spacecraft are critical to maintaining space awareness and significantly reducing travel times in the vast circumlunar region.” For human missions to Mars, “the nuclear propulsion system will provide flexible launch windows and allow for a longer stay on the planet itself.”
NASA is also exploring NTP capabilities. In a February statement, the agency said: “While NASA’s Perseverance rover is on the Red Planet, ground engineers are developing potential propulsion technologies for the first crewed flights to Mars. NASA is considering two types of nuclear power plants – electrical and thermal. ” The agency stressed that the NTP technology “provides high thrust and twice the fuel efficiency than chemical missiles.”
NASA is working with the Department of Energy (DOE) to solicit preliminary reactor design concepts for a nuclear thermal propulsion system from the industry. “The agencies are planning to fund several attempts to explore different approaches. In future subsequent contracts, more detailed reactor designs and pre-test equipment will be built, ”NASA said.