Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems could hold the key to manned missions into deep space. After sidelining the tech in the '70s due to budget constraints, NASA recently returned to NTP as a means of getting humans to Mars. The system, which works by transferring heat from a nuclear reactor to a liquid propellant to generate thrust, provides twice the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets.
To speed up the pace of NTP tech development, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected a trio of companies to build and demonstrate a nuclear-based propulsion system on a spacecraft above low-Earth orbit by 2025. The prime contractors include Jeff Bezos' private space project Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics.
Over the next 18 months, phase 1 of the DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program will see the companies split across two tracks to develop a craft that has the ability to rapidly maneuver in cislunar space (between the Earth and the moon). The award win marks a new national security contract for Blue Origin, according to CNBC, while its DRACO counterparts are regulars on the defense circuit.
Bezos' company and Lockheed Martin — granted $2.5 million and $2.9 million, respectively — will now work on competing designs for an operational spacecraft powered by an NTP system. DARPA awarded General Atomics $22 million to develop the nuclear reactor.
“The performer teams have demonstrated capabilities to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion, and spacecraft systems,” said Maj. Nathan Greiner, United States Air Force, program manager for DRACO. “The NTP technology we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO program aims to be foundational to future operations in space."