DARPA and NASA are advancing toward the goal of the world’s first in-orbit demonstration of a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine via DRACO, the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations. DARPA has finalized an agreement with Lockheed Martin for the company to begin work on the fabrication and design of the experimental NTR vehicle (X-NTRV) and its engine.
An NTR achieves high thrust similar to in-space chemical propulsion but is two-to-three-times more efficient. With a successful demonstration, we could significantly advance humanity’s means for going faster and farther in space and pave the way for the future deployment for all fission-based nuclear space technologies.
The objective of the DRACO programme is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system in orbit. NTP uses a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before expelling it through a nozzle to produce thrust. Compared with conventional space propulsion technologies, nuclear thermal propulsion offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and a two-to-five times greater specific impulse than chemical propulsion.
The team will complete final design of the nuclear reactor, manufacture the reactor’s hardware and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, assemble the components and deliver the fueled reactor as a complete subsystem for integration into the DRACO.
DRACO is targeted for a 2027 launch from Earth in ‘cold’ status (meaning that the reactor is turned off as a part of launch safety protocols) by a conventional rocket, and then the reactor will be powered on once the craft attains an appropriate location above low Earth orbit.
The DRACO program takes advantage of the nation’s early investments in nuclear thermal technology via the previous Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program, but with a new fuel option that presents fewer logistical hurdles. DARPA is using high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, made possible via National Security Presidential Memorandum 20 (NSPM-20), which updated U.S. policy for the launch of space nuclear power and propulsion. As an additional safety measure, DARPA will engineer the system so that the engine’s fission reactor will stay turned off until it reaches its designated orbit.
The U.S. Space Force will provide the launch vehicle that will take the X-NTRV into space in 2027. The Department of Energy will provide HALEU metal, to be processed into fuel by the performer. BWX Technologies (BWXT), one of Lockheed Martin’s partners in the effort, will develop the nuclear reactor and fabricate the HALEU fuel.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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