NASA joins military program to develop nuclear thermal propulsion

Propel a space vehicle using nuclear energy. Announced three years ago, the project led by DARPA, the US Department of Defense agency responsible for research and development, is now taking a new turn with the upcoming collaboration of NASA.

Facilitate missions to Mars

Named DRACO for “Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations Demonstration”, the DARPA project aims to develop two concepts: a nuclear fission reactor and a vehicle to fly it. In 2021, the Defense Department’s Innovation Program awarded several million dollars to private companies to help design a prototype. General Atomics, Lockheed Martin or even Blue Origin would have received funds, according to Ars-Technica.

For NASA, the objective is twofold: to provide its knowledge of space technology and to take advantage of the future reactor to carry out its own missions. “Thanks to this new technology, astronauts could get to and from deep space faster than ever before — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars”explains in particular Bill Nelson, administrator of the American space agency, in a communicated.

Rockets “three times more effective”

Future adoption of this technology by NASA would reduce the flight time of its missions. Time saved on transport means greater safety for the astronauts. Having such technology would also allow the American space program to carry out flights with heavier loads, and thus embark more scientific equipment. “Thermal nuclear rockets can be three times more efficient, or even more, than conventional chemical propulsion”says NASA.

For this project, it is precisely the department in charge of conducting space technology missions (Space Technology Mission Directorate) which will be responsible for carrying out the development. A program that will nevertheless remain under the supervision of DARPA. The first results are expected in 2027, the year during which NASA plans to carry out tests with a finalized prototype. A very optimistic calendar.

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