NASA to get nuclear-powered rocket, revolutionise space travel

NASA's DRACO program aims to revolutionise space travel with a nuclear-powered rocket, propelling Mars missions and advancing propulsion technology.

| Updated on: Jul 28 2023, 17:49 IST
NASA takes a nuclear leap for future Mars missions. (DARPA/NASA)
NASA takes a nuclear leap for future Mars missions. (DARPA/NASA)

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is under the US government, have unveiled an ambitious plan to revolutionise space exploration. Their joint venture, known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), aims to propel space travel to new heights by employing nuclear-powered rockets. Lockheed Martin has been chosen to lead the design, construction, and testing of this groundbreaking rocket, with an anticipated launch in space by 2027.

The DRACO Program

The DRACO program signifies a giant leap in propulsion technology, holding the potential to drastically shorten crewed missions to Mars, rendering them less complex and safer for astronauts.

The utilisation of nuclear propulsion in rockets offers a host of advantages. Notably, nuclear-powered rockets are more than twice as efficient as traditional chemical rockets, requiring significantly less propellant while increasing the payload capacity for scientific equipment.

Lockheed Martin Takes the Lead

Lockheed Martin will be in charge of designing, integrating, and testing the spacecraft, while BWX Technologies, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, will be responsible for developing the nuclear fission reactor that will serve as the rocket's power source.

Under the guidance of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the overall management and execution of the nuclear-powered DRACO engine will be overseen. Dr. Prasun Desai, acting associate administrator for STMD at NASA Headquarters in Washington, emphasised the significance of prior investments in commercial nuclear propulsion technology. He stated, "Now, those investments are coming full circle as we work with these same companies to build the first nuclear-powered rocket to fly in space."

Advancing Space Nuclear Technology Initiatives

Apart from the DRACO program, NASA is collaborating with the Department of Energy and industry on other space nuclear technology initiatives. These projects include the Fission Surface Power project and a separate effort to explore potential designs for future nuclear thermal spacecraft.

To fuel the DRACO partnership, NASA has pledged up to $300 million, which covers up to $250 million for the design and development agreement of the nuclear-powered engine. The investment also encompasses technical oversight and expertise from agency personnel.

With the DRACO project in motion, NASA and its partners are taking a significant step towards unlocking the potential of nuclear propulsion in space, bringing human missions to Mars and beyond closer to reality than ever before. The future of space exploration looks brighter with the promise of faster, safer, and more efficient travel through the cosmos.

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First Published Date: 28 Jul, 17:49 IST
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