Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems may be the key to manned missions to deep space. After putting technology aside in the 1970s due to budget constraints, NASA has recently returned to NTP as a means of getting people to Mars. The system, which works by transferring heat from a nuclear reactor to a liquid propellant to generate thrust, offers twice the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets.
To accelerate the development of NTP technology, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected a trio of companies to build and demonstrate a nuclear propulsion propulsion system on a spacecraft above Earth orbit. low by 2025. Prime contractors include Jeff Bezos Blue Origin Private Space Project, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics.
In Phase 1 of the DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program, the companies will split into two tracks over the next 18 months to develop a spacecraft that can rapidly maneuver in cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon). According to CNBC, the award won marks a new national security contract for Blue Origin, while their DRACO counterparts are regulars on the defense circuit.
Bezos’ and Lockheed Martin’s company, which received $ 2.5 million and $ 2.9 million respectively, will now work on competing designs for an operational spacecraft powered by an NTP system. DARPA awarded General Atomics $ 22 million to develop the nuclear reactor.
“Executive teams have demonstrated their ability to develop and deploy advanced jet, propulsion and spacecraft systems,” said Major Nathan Greiner, program director for the US Air Force and DRACO. “The NTP technology that we intend to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO program should provide the foundation for future space operations.”
DARPA selects Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin to build nuclear spacecraft