The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA earlier announced a partnership to work on a nuclear engine for long-distance space travel, and the two organisations have now chosen Lockheed Martin to create a demonstration. NASA is reconsidering how we’ll get there as it turns its attention back to the Moon and sets its sights on Mars and beyond in the coming decades.
DRACO, The Partnership
According to a DARPA press statement, the partnership is known as DRACO, or Demonstratiodrn Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, and the project is currently moving into the design stage. BWX Technologies and Lockheed Martin will collaborate on the design. According to the business, a nuclear engine test is about to be conducted, with collaborator BWXT providing the reactor and fuel for DRACO’s high-assay low-enriched uranium engine. The DRACO test rocket’s launch date was disclosed in a news release by BWXT.
DARPA programme manager Tabitha Dodson stated in the announcement that the goal of the DRACO programme is to provide the country with propulsion technology that is a leap ahead. She added that, with a successful test, “we could significantly advance humanity’s means of going faster and farther in space and pave the way for the future deployment for all fission-based nuclear space technologies.” A nuclear engine “achieves high thrust similar to in-space chemical propulsion but is two- to three-times more efficient, she said.”
More Effective Propulsion
During the test, DRACO will be launched from Earth on a normal rocket with the reactor off, and once it has risen above low Earth orbit, mission controllers will turn the reactor on. The nuclear engine will use a fission reactor to produce high temperatures to heat a liquid propellant, which will then heat up and expand before being blasted via a nozzle to accelerate the spacecraft, according to a prior news release from NASA from January. The nuclear engine, according to NASA at the time, may be three or more times as effective as conventional chemical propulsion.
Throughout January, NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said, “Our intent is to lead and develop a blueprint for human exploration and sustained presence in the solar system.” The evaluation of the technologies that will allow us to travel further into the solar system will heavily rely on DRACO.
NASA previously stated that cutting the transit time to the Moon, Mars, and other planets in the solar system will lessen the amount of supplies required, which then free up will space for more research payloads and more effective communications hardware. Faster travels are safer because the astronauts will be exposed to cosmic radiation less frequently as they travel through space.