The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) today awarded General Atomics $22.16 million for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) - Track A program.
The DRACO project aims to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system in Earth orbit. NTP uses a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before expelling the hot propellant through a nozzle to produce thrust. Compared to conventional space propulsion technologies, NTP offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two-to-five times greater specific impulse (i.e. propellant efficiency) than chemical propulsion.
The program anticipates two tracks. Track A will include the baseline design of a NTP reactor and culminate in a baseline design review. Track B will include development of an operational system concept to meet operational mission objectives and a demonstration system design that is traceable to the operational system but focuses on demonstrating the propulsion subsystem. Track B is anticipated to culminate in a technology maturation plan review for the demonstration system.