DARPA’s nuclear rocket demo gets a boost from NASA’s Mars ambitions

January 24, 2023, 3:02PMNuclear News
Artist’s concept of the DRACO spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. (Image: DARPA)

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have announced they will collaborate on plans to launch and test DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). DARPA has already worked with private companies on the baseline design for a fission reactor and rocket engine—and the spacecraft that will serve as an in-orbit test stand—and has solicited proposals for the next phase of work. Now NASA is climbing on board, deepening its existing ties to DRACO’s work in nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) technology—an “enabling capability” required for NASA to meet its Moon to Mars Objectives and send crewed missions to Mars. NASA and DARPA representatives announced the development at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum in National Harbor, Md., on January 24.

GA’s delivery of DRACO nuclear rocket design supports FY 2026 in-orbit demo goal

November 10, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News
(Image: General Atomics)

General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) has completed the baseline design of a reactor and engine for a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) rocket and has successfully tested key reactor components under contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the company announced on November 7. The work was performed under a Track A, Phase 1 contract for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program; Phases 2 and 3 of DRACO could culminate in a demonstration of the nuclear-propelled spacecraft in cislunar space (the region between the Earth and the Moon) during fiscal year 2026.

DOD seeks in-space demo of nuclear rocket engine in FY 2026

May 9, 2022, 12:00PMNuclear News

The Department of Defense wants to deploy spacecraft in cislunar space—the area between Earth and the moon’s orbit—with thrust and agility that only nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) can provide. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), through its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, is looking to private industry for the design, development, fabrication, assembly, and testing of a nuclear thermal rocket engine fueled with high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel to heat a liquid hydrogen propellant.

GA’s Christina Back: U.S. “absolutely needs to be in cislunar space”

April 20, 2021, 7:00AMNuclear News
Image: DARPA

The U.S. Department of Defense is aiming to demonstrate a novel nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit by 2025. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on April 12 that following a competitive solicitation process, it has awarded a contract to General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) for the design of the nuclear reactor that will power the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will work on a parallel track to design a spacecraft tailor-made to demonstrate the NTP system.