NASA will develop a nuclear-powered rocket, in collaboration with DARPA, with the rocket to be called DRACO. CEO Bill Nelson announced the collaboration during the AIAA SciTech. The project is called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, and NASA has already been working on it for some years, also with the advice and support of various private companies.
The last major prototype of a nuclear-powered space rocket is NERVA, a 1960s design that was finally canceled in 1972. Now, with new technologies and decades of experience operating nuclear fission reactors at its disposal, a rocket with this type of propulsion has become feasible again.
Under the agreement, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead the technical development of the nuclear heat engine to be integrated with DARPA's experimental spacecraft. DARPA serves as the contracting authority for the entire stage and engine development, which includes the reactor.
DARPA will lead the overall program, including missile systems integration and procurement, approvals, programming and safety, and will cover responsibility for, and ensure assembly and overall engine integration with the spacecraft.
NASA to develop a nuclear-powered rocket: Mars is closer
The advantage is obtained mainly in very long journeys, during which these engines with higher thrust performance and efficiency, manage to reduce the length of the travel trajectory to Mars, consequently reducing travel times.
According to current estimates, a trip to Mars could shrink from the current six months to less than two months. A key advantage for manned missions, when reducing time in space will be a primary objective. NASA STMD will lead the development of the nuclear-powered engine, while DARPA will act as a contracting and oversight agency, particularly for the integration between the engine and the prototype stage.
DARPA will oversee development security, contract management. The first space test of this prototype is scheduled for 2027. Jim Reuter, Administrator of NASA's STMD: "With this collaboration, we will build on the experience gained from many previous nuclear energy and propulsion projects in space.
Recent advances in aerospace and engineering materials are opening up a new was for space-based nuclear technology, and this demonstration flight will be a major achievement in creating space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy."