The US military is poised to take the next step in developing a nuclear missile to help monitor Earth-Moon space, an area the country considers a high strategic priority.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced May 4 that it is seeking proposals for the second and third phases of the rocket engine design, development and assembly project. nuclear heat detectors to carry out the scheduled flight in Earth orbit in 2026.
“These propulsion capabilities will allow the United States to advance its interests in space and expand the capabilities for human spaceflight missions in time,” DARPA officials said in a statement. long by NASA”.
These proposals will support DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Flexible Operation on the Moon (DRACO) program, which aims to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for use in Earth’s space- Moon. DRACO is part of a larger effort by the US military to monitor cislunar (Earth-moon) space as commercial and government activities increase in the field over the next decade.
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The NTP system works using fission reactors. Reactors heat hydrogen or other propellants to very high temperatures and then push the superheated gas out of the nozzle to generate thrust.
Compared to electric propulsion systems, NTPs have about 10,000 times higher thrust-to-weight ratios. And compared to traditional chemical rockets, the thrust (or specific pulse) efficiency of NTPs is about two to five times higher, DARPA officials wrote in a description of the DRACO program.
Phase 1 for Draco includes awards in April 2021 for General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin. This phase is planned to last 18 months across two independent tracks.
Track A, for General Atomics, includes the preliminary design of a thermonuclear reactor, along with a propulsion subsystem. Track B, which is being pursued independently by Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, aims to create an “active system spacecraft concept” to meet future mission goals, including a whole performance system.
In September 2020, DARPA also awarded a $14 million order to DRACO for Gryphon Technologies, a Washington, DC-based company that provides engineering and technology solutions to security organizations nation.
NASA is also interested in nuclear heat propulsion, because of the potential to carry out missions to Mars in half the time it could take between 6 and 9 months currently with current propulsion systems. NASA’s fiscal 2023 budget request, which has not yet been approved by Congress, includes $15 million to support nuclear propulsion.
The space agency is collaborating on the DRACO project “using a non-refundable commitment with industry participants where technology investment is mutually beneficial to both organizations,” NASA officials wrote in the request. $26 billion budget for fiscal year 2023, launched in March.
During the last fiscal year, NASA collaborated on flight demonstration projects “with subject matter expertise, fuel testing, and turbine machinery design,” the agency wrote of its DRACO work.
Notably, for fiscal year 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives allocated $110 million to focus on nuclear heat propulsion, “rejecting the Biden administration’s proposal to refocus NASA’s efforts on develop a nuclear reactor that could power crew bases on the moon and eventually Mars,” according to the American Institute of Physics.
https://www.space.com/darpa-nuclear-rocket-earth-moon-space US military wants nuclear rocket ideas for missions near the moon