The United States military is seriously considering developing a nuclear rocket to aid in the monitoring of Earth-moon space, also known as cislunar space, which it has designated as a high strategic priority.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the US Department of Defense, announced on May 4 that it is accepting proposals for the second and third phases of a project to design, manufacture, and construct a nuclear thermal rocket engine for a flying demonstration in Earth orbit by 2026.
The concept has been in development for some time, and the first phase of the project, Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), was launched in 2021 by the United States.
DARPA officials claimed in a statement that “these propulsive capabilities would enable the United States to advance its interests in space and to extend possibilities for NASA’s long-duration human spaceflight missions.”
Nuclear propulsion would allow the vessel to travel further while utilising less propellant than existing chemical rocket systems.
The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Missions (DRACO), according to DARPA, would also enable agile spacecraft manoeuvres in orbit, which is a target for future space operations. Quick movement would be important in the case of a space conflict to evade enemy craft.
DARPA plans to launch a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit in 2026 as part of a flight demonstration using nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP). The engine could potentially be utilised to travel between Earth and the moon in cislunar space. (On average, the moon is 238,855 miles away from us.)
The same technology, according to the Office of Nuclear Energy, may transport humans on long-duration spaceflight missions. One of them, for example, may be a trip to Mars.
DRACO is part of a larger US military effort to keep an eye on cislunar (Earth-moon) space, as government and private activity in this sector is expected to increase in the coming decade, especially with China sending several missions to space and bolstering its presence in space to challenge US hegemony.
China and Russia are also planning to build a lunar base before the end of the decade.
Are Nuclear Rockets About To Launch?
Fission reactors are used in the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) systems that the US is seeking for its spacecraft under the DRACO project. The reactors generate propulsion by superheating hydrogen or other propellants and then ejecting the superheated gas through nozzles.
The thrust-to-weight ratio of NTPs is 10,000 times that of electric propulsion systems. NTPs have a propulsion efficiency (or specific impulse) that is two to five times higher than normal chemical rockets, according to DARPA officials.
The DRACO programme began with a General Atomics conceptual design for a rocket engine reactor. Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, two other spaceflight businesses, proposed the programme with two conceptual spaceship designs in 2021.
In April 2021, DRACO Phase 1 awarded contracts to General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin. The phase was planned to last 18 months and be divided into two sections.
The basic design of a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor, as well as a propulsion subsystem, were included in Track A for General Atomics.
Track B was explored separately by Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin to build a “operational system spacecraft design” to meet future mission objectives, which included a demonstration system.
DARPA recently granted a $14 million task order for DRACO to Gryphon Technologies, a Washington-based company that delivers engineering and technological solutions to national security agencies.
DARPA is now running an open competition to ensure that the project is not limited to the companies that have already expressed interest.
The Pentagon is looking for detailed ideas that show how engineers will design, develop, manufacture, and assemble the engine. The submission date is August 5.
Nuclear thermal propulsion has been studied by scientists since the 1960s. According to Popular Mechanics, scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory aided in the development and testing of nuclear rockets when the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application programme was active.
Nuclear thermal propulsion is of particular interest to NASA since it has the ability to get expeditions to Mars in half the time that current propulsion technologies can.
NASA’s budget plan for fiscal year 2023, which Congress has yet to approve, includes $15 million for nuclear propulsion.
Given the goal to dominate space and the efficiency of nuclear propellant, the United States may soon be deploying nuclear rockets to space and reinventing its manoeuvres as the space race and its growing militarization continue at pace.