Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems could hold the key to manned deep space missions. After shelving technology in the 1970s due to budget constraints, NASA recently returned to NTP as a means of bringing humans to Mars. The system, which works by transferring heat from a nuclear reactor to a liquid propellant to generate thrust, delivers twice the efficiency of the chemical rocket propellant.
To accelerate the pace of NTP technology development, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected a trio of companies to build and demonstrate a nuclear propulsion system on a spacecraft above low earth orbit by 2025. Prime contractors include Jeff Bezos’ private space project Blue origin, Lockheed Martin, and General atomic.
Over the next 18 months, phase 1 of the DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program will see companies split on two tracks to develop a craft capable of maneuvering rapidly in cislunar space (between Earth and Moon). . . The prize won marks a new national security contract for Blue Origin, according to CNBC, while its DRACO counterparts are regulars on the defense circuit.
Bezos and Lockheed Martin – who receive $ 2.5 million and $ 2.9 million respectively – will now work on competing designs for an operational spacecraft powered by an NTP system. DARPA gave General Atomics $ 22 million to develop the nuclear reactor.
“The interpreter teams have demonstrated capabilities to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion and spacecraft systems,” said Major Nathan Greiner, United States Air Force, program director for DRACO. “The NTP technology that we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO program aims to be fundamental for future space operations.”