Tech News: DARPA selects Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin to manufacture nuclear spacecraft.
Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems may be the key to manned missions in deep space. After putting technology aside in the 1970s due to budget constraints, NASA recently returned to NTP as a means of getting people to Mars. The system, which works by transferring heat from a liquid propellant nuclear reactor to generate thrust offers double the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets.
To accelerate the development of NTP technology, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected a trio of companies to build and demonstrate a nuclear-powered propulsion system on a spacecraft above low earth orbit by 2025. Major contractors include Jeff Bezos Blue Origin’s Private Space Project, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics.
In Phase 1 of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, the companies will split on two tracks over the next 18 months to develop an aircraft capable of rapid maneuvering in cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon). According to CNBC, the winning award marks a new national security contract for Blue Origin, while its DRACO counterparts are regular on the defense circuit.
Bezos and Lockheed Martin’s company – who received $ 2.5 million and $ 2.9 million respectively – will now work on competing projects for an operational spacecraft powered by an NTP system. DARPA awarded General Atomics $ 22 million for the development of the nuclear reactor.
“The executive teams have demonstrated their ability to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion and spacecraft systems,” said US Air Force Maj. Nathan Greiner, program manager for DRACO. “The NTP technology that we intend to develop and demonstrate as part of the DRACO program should provide the foundation for future space operations.”