Could a Nuclear Thermal Rocket Engine Power a Trip to Mars? NASA and DARPA Are

Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) Spacecraft

Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology could be used for future NASA crewed missions to Mars. Credit: DARPA

NASA and DARPA will partner on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program. The non-reimbursable agreement designed to benefit both agencies, outlines roles, responsibilities, and processes aimed at speeding up development efforts.

“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. “Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.”

Mars Transit Habitat and Nuclear Propulsion System

Illustration of a Mars transit habitat and nuclear propulsion system that could one day take astronauts to Mars. Credit: NASA

Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts. Reducing transit time is a key component for human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon to Mars Objectives.

Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication. In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.

“NASA has a long history of collaborating with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as in-space servicing,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Expanding our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help drive forward NASA’s goal to send humans to Mars.”

Under the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine to be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA is acting as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and the engine, which includes the reactor. DARPA will lead the overall program including rocket systems integration and procurement, approvals, scheduling, and security, cover safety and liability, and ensure overall assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft. Over the course of the development, NASA and DARPA will collaborate on assembly of the engine before the in-space demonstration as early as 2027.

“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for…

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