NASA and the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a collaboration to develop and demonstrate a working thermonuclear rocket engine by 2027. NASA and DARPA signed an agreement for the DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) project.
“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a press statement.
According to the space agency, nuclear thermal rockets will ensure faster transit times in space, which would mean reduced risks for astronauts. Reduced transit times would be crucial for long-term missions to Mars and beyond since they also help reduce the amount of supplies and robustness of systems required for space travel. A nuclear thermal rocket engine will also help increase the payload capacity and will also provide higher power that can be used for instruments and communication.
The planned rocket engine will use a fission reactor to generate high temperatures. This heat will then be transferred to a liquid propellant which will expand. As it expands, it will be exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. According to NASA, such a rocket engine can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion systems.
Under the agreement between NASA and DARPA, the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead the technical development of the nuclear thermal engine that will be integrated into the latter’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA will act as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and the engine, including the reactor.
“With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects. Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD, in a press statement.
The United States last conducted thermonuclear rocket engine tests more than 50 years ago under the American space agency’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.