USNC subsidiary supporting cislunar rocket contractors

18 June 2021

Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) - a subsidiary of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) - is providing "critical support" to both prime contractors in the first phase of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system (NTP) for cislunar operations. USNC-Tech is the only company participating in both tracks of the programme.

USNC-Tech's NTP design concept (Image: USNC)

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA's) DRACO programme aims to demonstrate an NTP system above low Earth orbit in 2025. The agency in April announced it had awarded contracts for the first 18-month phase of the programme: a USD22 million contract for Track A, focused on the design of the NTP reactor, to General Atomics; and a USD2.5 million contract for Track B, focused on the operational spacecraft to demonstrate it, to Blue Origin.

"This is a remarkable moment for NTP development and for our company" Paolo Venneri, USNC-Tech executive vice president, said. "Our selection to participate in not one but two teams for the DRACO programme shows the strength of our ability to design and analyse these high-performance systems."

Activity in cislunar space - that is, between the Earth and the Moon - is rising as space agencies and companies around the world pursue new lunar ambitions, USNC said. NTP systems, which use a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before expelling the hot propellant through a nozzle to produce thrust, offer a thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and a propellant efficiency that is two-to-five times greater than chemical propulsion.

The White House in December 2020 issued a memorandum establishing a national strategy to ensure the development and use of space nuclear power and propulsion systems, including NTP systems, which can power spacecraft for missions where alternative power sources are inadequate. The technology being developed under the DRACO programme could also be foundational to future operations beyond cislunar space, such as the development of an NTP system for the first human missions to Mars, USNC said.

"Even with the difference in scale of engine and spacecraft, a successfully demonstrated DRACO NTP can directly influence and speed up demonstration of a NASA NTP, said Vishal Patel, analysis lead at USNC-Tech and company lead for spacecraft development in Track A.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News