This thing could fly as soon as 2026.
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is calling for proposals for the next generation of spacecraft: a nuclear-powered rocket. The technology would allow a craft to travel farther with less propellant than today’s chemical rocket systems. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) would also enable agile spacecraft maneuvers in space, which is a goal for future space operations, according to DARPA. In case of war, fast maneuvering would be crucial to get out of the way of enemy craft.
DARPA—the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Defense—plans to hold a flight demonstration of nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) that would take a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit in 2026. Eventually, the engine could be used to fly through cislunar space, the expanse between Earth and the moon. (The moon’s average distance from us is 385 000 kilometres.) Perhaps the same technology could transport humans for long-duration spaceflight missions, according to the Office of Nuclear Energy. These could include going to Mars, for example.
NTP won’t launch spacecraft from Earth, though. That’s because NTP is not designed to achieve the millions of pounds of thrust needed to fight Earth’s gravitational pull. Once a spacecraft achieves orbit using more traditional chemical rocket propulsion, it will engage NTP rockets it’s carrying onboard.
The DRACO program began with a preliminary design from unmanned flight company General Atomics for a rocket engine reactor. Spaceflight companies Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin submitted two conceptual spacecraft designs to the program in 2021.
DARPA is accepting applications in an open competition so that the project is not limited to the companies that are already involved. The defense agency is looking for detailed proposals that describe how engineers would design, develop, fabricate, and assemble the engine. Submissions are due August 5.
Scientists have been investigating nuclear thermal propulsion since the 1960s. When the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application program was active, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists helped develop and test nuclear rockets.
If the DRACO program works as it’s intended, we could see a new generation of nuclear rockets zooming through space soon. They may even make it easier to reach Mars.