WASHINGTON – The Agency for Advanced Defense Research Projects has launched the next phase of a program to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear propulsion systems operating between the Earth and the Moon in the so-called cislunar space.

DARPA awarded Phase 1 contracts for the Cislunar Flexible Operations Demonstration Rocket in April 2021. General Atomics received a $ 22 million contract to develop a design for a nuclear reactor and thermal propulsion subsystem, a central part of the program.

Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth $ 2.5 million and $ 2.9 million, respectively, for the self-design of a spacecraft using the propulsion system.

DARPA expects to select one supplier for the next two phases, which according to a Application for May 4 are focused on finalizing the detailed design of the nuclear thermal rocket and building the spacecraft and its aircraft engine. Once completed, DARPA plans to hold a demonstration in orbit in fiscal 2026.

The agency’s request for the fiscal budget for 2023 includes $ 57 million for DRACO, an increase of $ 20 million compared to last year, which will support the transition to the next phase.

In the last few years, the US Department of Defense has changed its position on the cisinary space, moving from looking at threats from deep space as part of the distant future to recognizing that they could appear much earlier. This change has led to projects such as DRACO, as well as other research and development efforts within the Air Force and Space Forces Research Laboratory, which are expected to have the ability to raise awareness of the cislar domain in orbit over the next five to 10 years.

According to DARPA, DRACO’s nuclear thermal propulsion system can allow rapid maneuvering in space, which is difficult to perform with spacecraft powered by electric or chemical propulsion. While chemical systems provide a high thrust-to-weight ratio and electrical systems offer high efficiency, the nuclear thermal system combines both characteristics, making it ideal for cislinar missions.

“This allows NTP systems to be both faster and smaller than electrical and chemical systems, respectively,” the application said. “The propulsion capabilities provided by NTP will allow the United States to maintain its interests in space and expand NASA’s long-term human spaceflight missions.

DARPA notes that NASA has a particular interest in NTP technology because of its potential to reduce travel time on its missions and return astronauts to Earth much faster in the event of an emergency. The two agencies are collaborating on DRACO, and NASA has offered to partner with companies bidding for later phases of the program, offering its expertise on the subject as well as testing facilities.

Courtney Alban is a C4ISRNET reporter for space and new technologies. Previously, it covered the US Air Force and the US Space Force.


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