Blue Origin makes cut for DARPA nuclear propulsion trial

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Blue Origin, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin have been selected by DARPA for the first phase of a test programme for space-based nuclear propulsion.

nuclear propulsion
(Credit: DARPA)

The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme is aiming to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for the interlunar space above low Earth orbit by 2025.

Current space propulsion is generally either chemical or electric, but the former can be inefficient while the latter offers a poor thrust-to-weight ratio. NPTs have the potential to combine the benefits of both, pairing the efficiency of electric propulsion with high thrust-to-weight ratios of chemical thrust. According to DARPA, the technology would enable the DRACO spacecraft to fulfil the US Department of Defence’s key tenet of rapid manoeuvre in cislunar space between the Earth and Moon.

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“The performer teams have demonstrated capabilities to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion, and spacecraft systems,” said Major Nathan Greiner of the US Air Force, programme manager for DRACO. “The NTP technology we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO programme aims to be foundational to future operations in space.”

While both General Atomics and Lockheed Martin are well-established companies with a history of government collaboration on aerospace and defence projects, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is a relative newcomer to the sector. Although in existence since 2000, it is only in the last five years that Blue Origin has really entered the public consciousness, conducting numerous successful sub-orbital launches and revealing plans to develop a Moon lander.

Phase 1 of the DRACO programme will last 18 months and consist of two tracks. Track A will entail the preliminary design of an NTP reactor and propulsion subsystem concept and will be performed by General Atomic. Track B will see Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin work independently to produce Operational System (OS) spacecraft concepts and design Demonstration System (DS) spacecraft concepts. According to DARPA, the DS must be traceable to the OS concept, but specifically focus on demonstrating a nuclear propulsion subsystem.

“This first phase of the DRACO program is a risk reduction effort that will enable us to sprint toward an on-orbit demonstration in later phases,” added Greiner.