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NASA and DARPA’s Nuclear-Powered Rocket Project


NASA and DARPA have embarked on a mission to revolutionize space travel. This project, named DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), aims to develop a nuclear-powered rocket. This initiative is a partnership with Lockheed Martin and BWX Technologies. The project, announced on July 26, seeks to harness nuclear propulsion, diverging from conventional chemical rockets. This technology could significantly shorten travel time to Mars and facilitate more efficient lunar missions.

The DRACO project is set to test its prototype in space by late 2026, marking a rapid progression in its development. Tabitha Dodson, the DARPA program manager, highlighted the use of heritage hardware from previous missions to ensure reliability. This approach also allows for the integration of the prototype’s second and third development phases, expediting the process. The project has completed its first phase and has a combined budget of $499 million for the next two.

While the primary goal is to facilitate interplanetary travel, particularly to Mars, the project also has potential military applications. DARPA’s investment in experimental technologies often yields unforeseen benefits, and the nuclear rocket could have strategic uses, such as rapidly deploying satellites.

DARPA has selected Lockheed Martin to develop a nuclear powered demonstration spacecraft
DARPA has selected Lockheed Martin to develop a nuclear powered demonstration spacecraft

The concept of a nuclear-powered rocket is not new. It traces back to Project Orion in the 1950s, which led to ground engine tests. However, current safety requirements and environmental considerations have shifted the focus to space-based testing. The DRACO prototype will be placed in a 700-kilometer high orbit, ensuring it remains aloft for centuries, mitigating risks associated with ground testing.

Previous designs utilized weapons-grade uranium-235, but modern safety concerns have led to the adoption of less enriched uranium. This change enhances safety during construction, launch, and operation. Anthony Calomino, a NASA scientist, emphasized the reduced need for stringent protection measures with this new design.

Safety measures extend to the launch phase. The fission chain reaction is controlled using rotating drums that absorb or reflect neutrons, depending on their position. This innovation allows for precise control over the reactor’s activity, ensuring safety until the engine reaches orbit.

The upcoming flight test of the DRACO prototype aims to evaluate several key features, including thrust and specific impulse. Specific impulse, a measure of efficiency, is notably higher in nuclear rockets compared to chemical ones. Lockheed Martin’s Lisa May conveyed to National Defense that nuclear propulsion could achieve a specific impulse between 700 to 900 seconds, a significant improvement over the 400 seconds typical of chemical rockets in a vacuum.

Another critical aspect of the test is the storage of liquid hydrogen, the rocket’s fuel. The goal is to maintain the fuel in orbit for several months, far exceeding current capabilities. This advancement would not only enhance the longevity of space missions but also opens up the possibility of refueling in orbit, drastically extending the operational life of spacecraft.

The success of these tests could lead to the development of a lunar rocket, drastically improving the feasibility of establishing and supplying a lunar base. The ultimate aim, however, remains the facilitation of manned missions to Mars, leveraging the enhanced speed and efficiency of nuclear propulsion.

The DRACO project signifies a significant shift in space exploration strategies. By adopting nuclear propulsion, the timeframe for interplanetary travel, especially to Mars, could be dramatically reduced. This development is crucial for manned missions, where travel time directly impacts the health and safety of astronauts.

Moreover, the potential for prolonged storage and refueling of liquid hydrogen in space presents new possibilities for sustained deep space exploration. Current chemical rockets become obsolete after a short period, contributing to space debris. The nuclear option offers a more sustainable and efficient alternative.

The project’s dual-use potential for military purposes cannot be overlooked. DARPA’s involvement suggests that the technology developed could be adapted for defense-related applications, possibly in satellite deployment and maneuverability.

Despite the promising aspects of the DRACO project, there are significant challenges and considerations. The foremost is safety, both in terms of handling nuclear materials on Earth and managing a nuclear reactor in space. The team must ensure that every aspect of the design and operation adheres to strict safety protocols to prevent any form of contamination or accident.

Environmental concerns are also paramount, especially considering the use of nuclear technology. The project must address issues related to radioactive exhaust and waste management, ensuring minimal environmental impact both on Earth and in space.

Additionally, there are geopolitical implications. The development of such advanced technology by the United States could spur similar efforts by other nations, potentially leading to an escalation in space technology arms race.

The DRACO project marks a significant leap in space exploration technology. By harnessing nuclear propulsion, NASA and DARPA are opening new horizons for interplanetary travel and lunar exploration. The successful development and testing of the DRACO prototype could herald a new era in space travel, characterized by faster, more efficient, and longer-duration missions.

While the project presents immense opportunities, it also brings challenges and responsibilities. The team must navigate the complexities of safety, environmental impact, and geopolitical considerations. As the project progresses, it will undoubtedly attract global attention, reflecting humanity’s enduring quest to explore the final frontier.


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