DARPA has awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to develop the first Nuclear Thermal Propulsion spacecraft under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. Worth 499 million dollars, the milestone-based agreement aims to demonstrate that a nuclear fission reactor can operate in space and be used as the propulsion system of a spacecraft.
The future of spaceflight is clear. Actually, it's nuclear.@DARPA has awarded us a contract to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP)-powered spacecraft under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) project, the first demo of an NTP system in space. pic.twitter.com/kmnTgTxcW6— Lockheed Martin Space (@LMSpace) July 26, 2023
Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) is a new hope for human spaceflight
NTP promises to increase the efficiency of the current chemical propulsion engines by two-to-five times, allowing to reduce the duration of space travels, to go farther, and to consume less propellant.
This technology relies on a fission-based reactor that uses the special High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) as fuel.
The reactor provides a vast quantity of heat generated by the HALEU atoms split. The propulsion system utilizes heat to transform cryogenic hydrogen into a highly pressurized gas that can be directed out of a nozzle, producing a powerful thrust.
“If you want to be able to explore cost-effectively, be Earth-independent, and make going to Mars feasible, you need nuclear systems.”– Rob Chambers, Director of Commercial Civil Space Strategy and Business Development at Lockheed Martin
To build the reactor and manufacture the HALEU fuel, Lockheed Martin will partner with BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC. They will take advantage of BWXT AT extensive knowledge of nuclear applications, including the design and development of technology for NTP commissioned by NASA in 2017.
2027, the year of the NTP demo!
The DRACO spacecraft will fit into the fairing of a Falcon9-like rocket and will weigh approximately 2,000 kilograms. These characteristics will allow the usage of a commercial launcher to reach its operational orbit between 700 and 200 kilometers, lowering the launch costs.
The mission will last a few months, limited by the spacecraft’s capability to keep the hydrogen on board at cryogenic temperature. Efforts are being made to overcome this limitation by considering the possibility of refueling in space as a potential new feature for the spacecraft.
The launch of the prototype is scheduled for 2027, even if the project is already advanced and has the potential of launching in 2026.