USA awards space propulsion contracts

13 April 2021

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded contracts for the first phase of its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit in 2025. General Atomics will carry out reactor development work, while Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will develop spacecraft concept designs.

DARPA aims to demonstrate the NTP in 2025 (Image: DARPA)

DARPA says rapid manoeuvre - a core tenet of modern US Department of Defense operations on land, at sea and in the air - has traditionally been challenging to achieve in space. This is because current electric and chemical space propulsion systems have drawbacks in thrust-to-weight and propellent efficiency, respectively. DRACO's NTP system could potentially achieve high thrust-to-weight ratios similar to in-space chemical propulsion and approach the high propellent efficiency of electric systems, in a combination that would give a DRACO spacecraft greater agility to implement rapid manoeuvre in cislunar space (between the Earth and the moon).

"The performer teams have demonstrated capabilities to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion and spacecraft systems," Major Nathan Greiner, US Air Force programme manager for DRACO, said. "The NTP technology we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO programme aims to be foundational to future operations in space."

The first phase of the programme will last 18 months and consist of two tracks. Track A, performed by General Atomics, will entail the preliminary design of an NTP reactor and propulsion subsystem concept. For Track B, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will work independently to produce an operational system spacecraft concept to meet mission objectives, and design a system spacecraft concept focused on demonstrating an NTP propulsion subsystem.

"This first phase of the DRACO programme is a risk reduction effort that will enable us to sprint toward an on-orbit demonstration in later phases," Greiner said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News