BWXT to begin work on cislunar nuclear rocket engine and fuel

26 July 2023

The USA's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has finalised an agreement with Lockheed Martin to begin work on the fabrication and design of an experimental nuclear thermal rocket and its engine. BWX Technologies, one of Lockheed Martin's partners in the effort, will develop the nuclear reactor and fabricate the HALEU fuel.

How the DRACO rocket could look (Image BWXT)

DARPA, in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is advancing toward the goal of the world's first in-orbit demonstration of a nuclear thermal rocket engine via the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). It is more than 50 years since the last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests were conducted by the USA.

The objective of the DRACO programme is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system in orbit. NTP uses a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before expelling it through a nozzle to produce thrust. Compared with conventional space propulsion technologies, nuclear thermal propulsion offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and a two-to-five times greater specific impulse than chemical propulsion.

Working as part of a team led by Lockheed Martin, BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC will complete final design of the nuclear reactor, manufacture the reactor's hardware and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, assemble the components and deliver the fueled reactor as a complete subsystem for integration into the DRACO.

DRACO is targeted for a 2027 launch from Earth in 'cold' status (meaning that the reactor is turned off as a part of launch safety protocols) by a conventional rocket, and then the reactor will be powered on once the craft attains an appropriate location above low Earth orbit.

"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 BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC President Joe Miller. "This partnership with Lockheed Martin working for DARPA adds another important dimension to BWXT's already impressive line-up of nuclear reactor designs for commercial and defence applications."

"These more powerful and efficient nuclear thermal propulsion systems can provide faster transit times between destinations," added Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space. "Reducing transit time is vital for human missions to Mars to limit a crew's exposure to radiation. This is a prime technology that can be used to transport humans and materials to the Moon. A safe, reusable nuclear tug spacecraft would revolutionise cislunar operations."

In January, NASA and DARP announced they will partner on the DRACO programme, with the agreement aimed at speeding up development efforts.

Tabitha Dodson, DARPA's programme manager for the effort, said: "The DRACO programme aims to give the nation leap-ahead propulsion capability ... with a successful demonstration, we could significantly advance humanity's means for going faster and farther in space and pave the way for the future deployment for all fission-based nuclear space technologies."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News