DARPA awards contracts for major spacecraft nuclear propulsion system

DARPA has announced the recipients of its phase-one Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) contracts, an initiative that paves the way for future nuclear thermal propulsion spacecraft systems. In explaining the purpose of its DRACO program, DARPA says that current space propulsion systems aren't able to offer the 'rapid maneuver' capabilities it needs.

The first phase of DARPA's DRACO program will run for 18 months with Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics developing the preliminary design concept for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor and subsystem. Once that 'Track A' task is complete, the recipients will create an Operational System spacecraft concept, according to DARPA, as well as a Demonstration System spacecraft concept.

For this work, General Atomics will work on the Track A task, while Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin will — each independently — work on the Track B Demonstration System and Operational System concepts. DARPA plans to proceed with additional phases under the DRACO program, ones that will include everything from developing a detailed design to an on-orbit demonstration.

USAF Maj. Nathan Geiner, DRACO's program manager, said:

The performer teams have demonstrated capabilities to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion, and spacecraft systems. The NTP technology we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO program aims to be foundational to future operations in space [...] This first phase of the DRACO program is a risk reduction effort that will enable us to sprint toward an on-orbit demonstration in later phases.

DARPA envisions a nuclear thermal propulsion system that will offer both the high propellent efficiency of an electric-based system and the thrust-to-weight ratios of chemical propulsion, offering the Department of Defense the ability to rapidly maneuver in space. The 'cislunar' aspect of this anticipated system refers to spacecraft that will engage in these rapid maneuvers in the space between the Moon and Earth.