Image: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has won a contract from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and demonstrate a nuclear-powered spacecraft under a project called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO).

The project will represent a rapid advancement in propulsion technology to benefit exploration and national defence.

DARPA partnered with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate on the DRACO project, as both agencies will benefit from this leading edge technology. The in-space flight demonstration of a nuclear thermal rocket engine vehicle will take place no later than 2027.

Faster, Farther, More Agile

Chemical propulsion engines have long been the standard for spaceflight, but for humans to travel to Mars, they will need much more powerful and efficient propulsion. Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engines offer thrust as high as conventional chemical propulsion with two-to-five times higher efficiency, which means the spacecraft can travel faster and farther and can significantly reduce propellant needs. They also enable abort scenarios on journeys to Mars that are not possible with chemical propulsion systems.

“These more powerful and efficient nuclear thermal propulsion systems can provide faster transit times between destinations. Reducing transit time is vital for human missions to Mars to limit a crew’s exposure to radiation,” said Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space. “This is a prime technology that can be used to transport humans and materials to the Moon. A safe, reusable nuclear tug spacecraft would revolutionise cislunar operations. With more speed, agility and maneuverability, nuclear thermal propulsion also has many national security applications for cislunar space.”

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