Gryphon to help develop HALEU-fuelled cislunar rocket

30 September 2020

Gryphon Technologies has been awarded a USD14 million task order by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to support its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme. Specifically, Gryphon will support the development and demonstration of a high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system.

An artistic impression of a cislunar rocket (Image: DARPA)

The new rocket will enable the US military to operate spacecraft in cislunar space, which is the region outside Earth's atmosphere and extending out to just beyond the Moon's orbit.

"A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap-ahead in space propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches," said Gryphon Chief Engineer Tabitha Dodson.

The objective of the DRACO programme is to demonstrate a 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 to conventional space propulsion technologies, NTP 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.

The DRACO programme anticipates two tracks. Track A will include the baseline design of an NTP reactor and culminate in a baseline design review. Track B will include development of an operational system concept to meet operational mission objectives, and a demonstration system design that is traceable to the operational system but focuses on demonstrating the propulsion subsystem. Track B is anticipated to culminate in a technology maturation plan review for the demonstration system.

Washington, DC-based Gryphon Technologies Inc is a provider of digital engineering, cloud solutions, predictive analytics and technical solutions and services to national security organisations.

"Gryphon is committed to providing high-end technical solutions to our nation's most critical national security challenges," said Gryphon CEO Pamela Braden. "We are proud to support DRACO and the development and demonstration of NTP, a significant technological advancement in efforts to achieve cislunar space awareness."

A design concept for a HALEU-fuelled NTP reactor to power future astronaut missions to Mars has exceeded key performance parameters and optimised the reactor for manufacturability, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems announced earlier this month.

Existing power and research reactors typically operate on low-enriched uranium, usually containing up to 5% uranium-235. HALEU fuel, which is enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235, will be required by many advanced reactor designs that are under development in both the commercial and government sectors, but such fuel is not yet commercially available. HALEU offers improved reactor economics, greater fuel efficiency, enhanced safety and proliferation resistance, lower volumes of waste and other advantages.

Centrus Energy is currently working under a three-year, USD115 million cost-shared contract with the US Department of Energy to deploy 16 of its AC-100M centrifuges at its Piketon, Ohio, facility to demonstrate HALEU production.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News