DARPA has announced that it has awarded contracts for the first phase of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. The program’s stated goal is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion system above low Earth orbit by 2025. The trio of prime contractors selected by DARPA includes General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin.
DARPA says that rapid maneuvering is a core tenant for modern DoD operations on land, sea, and air. However, rapid maneuvering in space has been challenging due to electric and chemical space propulsion systems in use today. Those systems have limitations in thrust-to-weight for electric and propellant efficiency for chemical propulsion systems. DRACO’s nuclear thermal propulsion system has the potential for high thrust-to-weight ratios similar to in-space chemical propulsion while approaching the high propellant efficiency of electric systems.
That combination of efficiencies would allow a DRACO spacecraft greater agility leading to the ability to implement DoD’s core tenant of rapid maneuvering in space between the Earth and moon. DRACO program manager Major Nathan Greiner from the USAF says the trio of teams have already demonstrated capabilities in developing and deploying advanced reactor, propulsion, and spacecraft systems. Nuclear thermal pulse technology the program seeks to develop and demonstrate aims to be the foundation for future operations in space.
The first phase for DRACO lasts 18 months and has two tracks. Track A entails the preliminary design of a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor and propulsion subsystem concept. Track B has a goal of producing an Operational System spacecraft concept designed to meet mission objectives and develop a Demonstration System. Greiner says that the first phase of the program involves risk reduction efforts to allow on-orbit demonstration in later stages of the program.
General Atomics is performing the Track A reactor development work with Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin independently performing Track B work. DRACO Phase 1 will impact follow-up phases in design, fabrication, and on-orbit demonstrations. DARPA will solicit all follow-on phases in the future.