BWXT to provide engine, fuel for DARPA space project

July 26, 2023, 3:01PMNuclear News
Image: Lockheed Martin

BWX Technologies announced today that it has been selected to supply the nuclear reactor and fuel for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program—the goal of which is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engine in orbit.

Working as part of a team headed by Lockheed Martin, BWXT Advanced Technologies (a BWXT subsidiary) will complete the final design of the reactor, manufacture its hardware and fuel, assemble the components, and deliver the fueled unit as a complete subsystem for integration into the DRACO program.

The NTP system uses high-assay low-enriched uranium, aka HALEU, fuel to rapidly heat a super-cold gas, such as liquid hydrogen. As the gas is heated, it expands quickly and creates thrust to move the spacecraft more efficiently than would typical chemical-combustion engines, according to BWXT.

DARPA has set a target date of 2027 for launching an NTP spacecraft by conventional rocket. The reactor would remain in “cold” status (meaning it would be turned off as a part of launch-safety protocols) until the spacecraft attains an appropriate location above low Earth orbit, at which time the reactor would be powered on.

Official words: “The award of this contract further demonstrates BWXT’s ability to design, manufacture, and deploy nuclear reactors and fuel on a scale that is unmatched elsewhere in the world today,” said Joe Miller, president of BWXT Advanced Technologies. “This partnership with Lockheed Martin working for DARPA adds another important dimension to BWXT’s already impressive lineup of nuclear reactor designs for commercial and defense applications.”

Kirk Shireman, vice president of lunar exploration campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space, noted that NTP systems “are more powerful and efficient” and “can provide faster transit times between destinations”—a key benefit as it would reduce the transit time for human missions to Mars, thus limiting a crew’s exposure to radiation. Shireman added, “This is a prime technology that can be used to transport humans and materials to the moon. A safe, reusable nuclear tug spacecraft would revolutionize cislunar operations.”

In case you missed it: DARPA and NASA announced in January that they had signed a nonreimbursable agreement on DRACO that outlined roles, responsibilities, and processes aimed at speeding up development efforts.

Said NASA administrator Bill Nelson at the time, “NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever—a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars. Our Moon to Mars Objectives are guiding our work, and we are now beginning to outline the architecture for future exploration. . . . One small step is one giant leap for humankind, and this partnership will take us one step closer as we dare to explore the unknown.”

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