Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin have been chosen by DARPA to design a spaceship for a nuclear propulsion demonstration

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency revealed on April 12 that Blue Origin, as well as Lockheed Martin, had been chosen to build rival spacecraft designs for a demo of the nuclear thermal propulsion. DARPA plans to show nuclear thermal propulsion technologies — utilizing a nuclear reactor to be able to heat rocket fuel to produce thrust — as part of a program named DRACO, which stands for demo rocket for the agile cislunar activities.

General Atomics was given a $22 million deal by DARPA to build the nuclear reactor. The contract with Lockheed Martin is worth $2.9 million, while the contract with Blue Origin is worth $2.5 million. The program aims to deploy a nuclear-thermal-propelled spacecraft above the low Earth orbit in the year 2025. DARPA claims that this research would enable spacecraft to fly vast distances in a short amount of time.

“Rapid maneuvering in space has historically been difficult due to modern electric as well as chemical space propulsion technologies’ thrust-to-weight and also propellent performance drawbacks,” stated DRACO program manager Maj Nathan Greiner.

Nuclear thermal propulsion “has the ability to achieve strong thrust-to-weight ratios comparable to the in-space chemical propulsion and also to approach the high propellant performance of sselectric systems,” he added. The project’s first 18 months would be spent focusing on General Atomics’ reactor as well as propulsion subsystem principles. Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin would build spacecraft project designs separately in the second process.

“We are excited to assist DARPA in progressing spacecraft designs for this critical technology area,” stated Brent Sherwood. He works as a senior vice president in charge of the advanced development programs at the Blue Origin in response to SpaceNews.

Nuclear thermal propulsion is an “impactful technology that can radically improve the way spacecraft work, increasing agility and enabling more reliable flight to Mars and even beyond in much less time than traditional propulsion systems,” according to Bill Pratt, the manager in charge of human exploration advanced projects at Lockheed Martin Space. According to DARPA, electric and chemical propulsion systems are currently in operation in space; however, other options will be needed for potential exploration outside Earth’s orbit. “The DRACO program aims to create a novel nuclear thermal propulsion system. Unlike current propulsion technologies, NTP can achieve strong thrust-to-weight ratios that are comparable to chemical propulsion, however with two to about five times the performance.’

According to DARPA, monitoring cislunar space – the amount of space between the Moon and earth – would necessitate a “breakthrough in propulsion technology.” On-orbit, the DRACO program would try to show a nuclear thermal propulsion device. To generate thrust, a nuclear reactor heats propellant to high temperatures before expelling it via a nozzle. In a tweet, Pratt said the firm would build on previous decades’ experience on nuclear propulsion “while we integrate it with computer innovation, advanced spacecraft architecture, and imagination to advance this emerging capability.”

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