US military picks 3 companies to test nuclear propulsion in cislunar space

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has picked three large space companies for the primary part of a bigger mission to test nuclear propulsion above low Earth orbit by 2025.

General Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin every acquired contracts for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program’s first part. While DARPA didn’t disclose the contract values in its announcement, media outlet Space News reported General Atomics acquired $22 million, Lockheed Martin $2.9 million and Blue Origin $2.5 million.

The groups have been chosen due to their capability to develop and deploy superior programs for reactors, propulsion and spacecraft, DARPA officers said in a statement. The agency significantly emphasised the necessity for “rapid maneuver” for military programs however mentioned that is tough in space with standard programs.

Related: US military eyes nuclear thermal rocket for missions in Earth-moon space

“Current electric and chemical space propulsion systems have drawbacks in thrust-to-weight and propellent efficiency,” the agency mentioned in the identical launch, including that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) is anticipated to handle these frequent issues.

NTP programs use fission reactors that warmth up propellants (similar to hydrogen) to excessive temperatures, spewing the gas at excessive speed via nozzles for thrust. The thrust-to-weight ratio with NTP is about 10,000 occasions increased than electrical propulsion programs, and propellant effectivity (often known as particular impulse) is wherever from two to 5 occasions larger than standard chemical rockets, DARPA officers wrote in (*3*).

The first part of this system has two tracks, lasting 18 months, with every firm pursuing completely different paths. Track A consists of the preliminary design of the nuclear thermal propulsion reactor, together with the propulsion subsystem. Track B will create an “operational system spacecraft concept” to meet future mission goals, together with an illustration system.

Track A reactor growth shall be carried out by General Atomics, whereas Track B work shall be pursued independently by Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, DARPA added. “DRACO’s Phase 1 is expected to inform follow-on phases for detailed design, fabrication, and on-orbit demonstration. Any follow-on phases will be solicited by DARPA in a future announcement,” the agency mentioned.

This month’s DARPA announcement follows on from a $14 million task order for DRACO awarded to Gryphon Technologies, an organization in Washington, D.C. that gives engineering and technical options to national safety organizations, in September 2020.

The previous NASA administration additionally expressed curiosity in the potential of nuclear propulsion, particularly for slicing the journey time to Mars by half to about three or 4 months, in contrast with chemical propulsion. The agency has mentioned it hopes to get astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

“That is absolutely a game-changer for what NASA is trying to achieve,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine mentioned during a meeting of the National Space Council in 2019. “That gives us an opportunity to really protect life, when we talk about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars,” he added.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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