NASA is shifting its focus back to the Moon and has set its sights on Mars and beyond for the upcoming decades. To achieve these ambitious goals, the agency is reevaluating the methods of space travel.
A collaboration between NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been announced, aimed at developing a nuclear-powered rocket suitable for long-distance space travel. Lockheed Martin has been chosen to lead the demonstration phase of this joint project.
Dubbed as DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), the project has now entered the design phase, as stated in a press release by DARPA.
Lockheed Martin will work alongside BWX Technologies to design and conduct tests on the nuclear thermal rocket engine (NTR). BWXT, as a collaborator, will provide the reactor for DRACO, along with its high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel. The plan is to launch the DRACO test rocket in 2027, according to a press release by BWXT.
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Tabitha Dodson, the program manager at DARPA, expressed that the primary aim of the DRACO program is to provide the nation with a cutting-edge propulsion capability.
The nuclear thermal rocket engine, she explained, achieves high thrust similar to in-space chemical propulsion, but it is two-to-three times more efficient.
A successful test would have a significant impact on advancing humanity’s ability to travel faster and farther in space, paving the way for future deployment of all fission-based nuclear space technologies.
The test process involves launching DRACO from Earth using a conventional rocket with the reactor turned off. Once the craft reaches an altitude above low Earth orbit, mission controllers will activate the reactor.
As described in a NASA press release from January, the fission reactor will generate high temperatures to heat a liquid propellant, which will then expand and be ejected through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft.
NASA also stated at the time that the nuclear thermal engine could be three or more times more efficient than traditional chemical propulsion.
In a fireside chat held in January, NASA’s deputy administrator, Pam Melroy, emphasized that their intention is to lead the way in developing a blueprint for human exploration and sustained presence in the solar system.
DRACO will play a crucial role in evaluating the technologies required for deeper space exploration.
By reducing travel time to the Moon, Mars, and other locations in the solar system, the need for supplies during transit can be minimized.
This, in turn, will free up space for additional scientific payloads and more efficient communication equipment, as previously stated by NASA. Faster trips will also ensure safer journeys for astronauts, as they will spend less time exposed to cosmic radiation while in space.
The timeline set by NASA and DARPA for a 2027 in-space test allows ample room for fine-tuning the rocket technology ahead of a potential crewed mission to Mars in the late 2030s.