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DARPA Space-Bound Nuclear Thermal Engine to Fly on Demo Rocket in 2026

I know, especially given the current global context, reading the words nuclear thermal rocket in the same sentence is not exactly soothing. But this is the reality we live in, and soon it will be one where nuclear propulsion is a common occurrence in space as well.
DARPA's DRACO nuclear rocket engine to launch in 2026 6 photos
Rhea Scorpius Heating Thermal CapacitorRhea Scorpius Heating Thermal CapacitorRhea Scorpius Heating Thermal CapacitorRhea Scorpius Heating Thermal CapacitorDemonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO)
Back in April of last year, we got word of DARPA working on something called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). That would be a program meant to come up with a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system to be used in a future spacecraft or rocket.

Going for nuclear propulsion in space is required, said DARPA at the time, because this way the spaceship, or rocket, or whatever will be powered by the NTP, could perform rapid maneuvers that are not easy to achieve with current electric and chemical space propulsion systems.

For Phase 1 of the project, DARPA selected in 2021 General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin. Phase 1 was to last for 18 months and result in a preliminary design of an NTP reactor and propulsion subsystem, but also of the spacecraft concept.

With that phase still ongoing, the agency announced last week it is now looking for Phases 2 and 3 proposals, which comprise the design, development, fabrication, and assembly of the NTP engine.

When the program was announced last year, the goal was to have the thing fly into space in 2025. Now, for some reason, that date has been pushed back one year, with 2026 now envisioned as the birth year for the concept.

“The United States employs maneuver to maintain advantages in the land, sea, and air domains. However, maneuver is more challenging in space due to propulsion system limitations,” said in a statement Major Nathan Greiner, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

“To maintain technological superiority in space, the United States requires leap-ahead propulsion technology that the DRACO program will provide.”

Editor's note: Gallery shows the Rhea Scorpius Heating Thermal Capacitor.

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