US military picks 3 companies to test nuclear propulsion above low-Earth orbit

General Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin each received contracts for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program's first phase.

Common Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin each received contracts for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program’s first phase. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has picked three large space companies for the first phase of a larger project to test nuclear propulsion over low Earth orbit by two thousand twenty-five. Common Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin each received contracts for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program’s first phase. While DARPA didn’t disclose the contract values in its announcement, media outlet Space News reported Common Atomics received $22 million, Lockheed Martin $2.9 million and Blue Origin $2.5 million. The teams were ed due to their skill to expand and deploy advanced systems for reactors, propulsion and spacecraft, DARPA executive said in a statement. The agency particularly emphasized the necessity for “rapid maneuver” for military systems but said this is challenging in space with conventional systems. “Current electric and chemical space propulsion systems have drawbacks in thrust-to-weight and propellent efficiency,” the agency said in the same release, adding that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) is expected to address these common problems. NTP systems fission reactors that heat up propellants (such as hydrogen) to high temperatures, spewing the gas at high speed through nozzles for thrust. The thrust-to-weight ratio with NTP is about 10.000 times higher than electric propulsion systems, and propellant efficiency (also known as specific impulse) is any two to five times greater than conventional chemical rockets, DARPA executive wrote in a description of the DRACO program. The first phase of the program has two tracks, lasting eighteen months, with each company pursuing different paths. Track A includes the preliminary design of the nuclear thermal propulsion reactor, along with the propulsion subsystem. Track B will an “operational system spacecraft concept” to meet future mission objectives, including a demonstration system. Track A reactor development will be performed by Common Atomics, while Track B work will be pursued independently by Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, DARPA added. “DRACO’s Phase one is expected to notify follow-on phases for detailed design, fabrication, and on-orbit demonstration. Any follow-on phases will be solicited by DARPA in a future announcement,” the agency said. This month’s DARPA announcement follows on a $14 million task order for DRACO awarded to Gryphon Technologies, a company in Washington, D.C. that provides engineering and technical solutions to national security organizations, in September two thousand twenty.

The past NASA administration also expressed interest in the potential of nuclear propulsion, particularly for slicing the travel time to Mars by half to about three or four months, compared with chemical propulsion. The agency has said it hopes to obtain astronauts to the Ruddy Planet in the two thousand thirty. “That’s absolutely a game-changer for what NASA is trying to achieve,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a meeting of the National Space Council in two thousand-nineteenth. “That gives us an opportunity to really defend life, when we speak about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars,” he added.

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