DARPA has awarded contracts for Phase One of its DRACO program; this week we analyze the heavy-hitting space companies it has chosen to create its future nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

DARPA’s DRACO Program: The Future of Nuclear Propulsion in Space

DRACO program
Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (Credit: DARPA).

Welcome to this edition of The Intelligence Brief. In this week’s newsletter, we are training our focus on 1) the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Phase One of its DRACO program, 2) the heavy-hitting space companies it has tasked to create its future nuclear thermal propulsion systems, and 3) how these technologies may set the pace for the future of human space exploration.

Before we get into the thick of things, over at The Debrief this week we have several of our usual suspects hard at work providing commentary and analysis on what’s happening in the world of science, tech, and defense. Prolific blogger and reporter Jazz Shaw outlines a few reasons to question whether recent photos and video depicting mystery drones involved with US Navy incidents are just balloons and other prosaic technologies. Tim McMillan also looks at NASA’s search for possible “alien” artifacts in our solar system, and MJ Banias tells us how satellite internet the likes of which SpaceX aims to provide around the world might help to destabilize dictatorships. Meanwhile, Christopher Plain highlights the Catholic conference that will be looking at A.I. and other possible forms of life, and I recently covered how astronauts discovered a mysterious geological feature decades ago that has baffled researchers for decades. We’ll have a complete listing of stories at the end of this newsletter… and with that, it’s time to dive into DARPA’s adventures in advanced nuclear propulsion.


DARPA Awards Contracts for Phase One of its DRACO Program

The future of nuclear propulsion in space is now visible on the horizon, with three heavy-hitters in the burgeoning space industry having been announced by DARPA as their picks for conducting tests with new propulsion systems in low Earth orbit in the coming years.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced Blue Origin, General Atomics, and aerospace veterans Lockheed Martin as its selections on account of each company’s capability in terms of producing and deploying the required systems for nuclear spacecraft propulsion, according a statement at DARPA’s website. Contracts have been awarded to each of the companies for the first phase of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO program.

“The goal of the DRACO program is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit in 2025,” the DARPA statement read.

DARPA’s Headquarters in Arlington County, Virginia (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

“Rapid maneuver is a core tenet of modern Department of Defense (DoD) operations on land, at sea, and in the air,” the statement emphasized, noting that such rapid maneuver capability in the space domain “has traditionally been challenging because current electric and chemical space propulsion systems have drawbacks in thrust-to-weight and propellent efficiency, respectively.”

With the DRACO program, DARPA aims to achieve high thrust-to-weight ratios that are on par with existing systems involving traditional rocket fuel-based approaches, which will be capable of reaching high efficiency propulsion with electric systems.

“This combination would give a DRACO spacecraft greater agility to implement DoD’s core tenet of rapid maneuver in cislunar space,” the statement read.


Key Players in the Future of Cislunar Studies  

General Atomics, based in San Diego, California, is an R&D company whose main focus is energy and defense applications which include those in the nuclear realm. In recent years, among their more notable contributions have been the production of technologies related to military UAVs like Predator drones, as well as a variety of other research and development applications related to avionics, communication, and laser technologies.

According to Space News, General Atomics received $22 million for the contract, while Lockheed Martin obtained $2.9 million, and Blue Origin only $2.5 million. DARPA did not, however, disclose these amounts in the official statement at their website.

DARPA says that General Atomics, having been awarded the most substantial contract, has been tasked with the Track A reactor development work.

Meanwhile, the Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin, LLC, founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com fame and already recognized for its production of sub-orbital spaceflight technologies, will be working independently on the program’s Track B development, a task which Lockheed Martin will also perform “to develop OS and DS spacecraft concept designs.”

“DRACO’s Phase 1 is expected to inform follow-on phases for detailed design, fabrication, and on-orbit demonstration,” DARPA says, adding that it has not yet solicited any companies for involvement in future phases of the DRACO program.


On the Track Toward Nuclear Propulsion

DRACO’s first phase is projected to last 18 months, and according to the current information provided by DARPA, Track A of the program (overseen by General Atomics) will focus on the NTP reactor design, as well as production of a concept for its propulsion subsystem. Meanwhile, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will produce concepts for Operational System (OS) and Demonstration System (DS) spacecraft. DARPA says that the Demonstration System spacecraft produced in Track B will aim to demonstrate an NTP propulsion subsystem.

Artist’s concept of a Mars transit habitat and nuclear propulsion system (Credit: NASA).

Such systems, once they become operational, will have a variety of applications, none of which have been overlooked by NASA. Over the years, the space agency has estimated that nuclear propulsion systems for spacecraft could be pivotal in future efforts to place humans on Mars, reducing travel time to the Red Planet by as much as half the time traditional chemical propulsion would require.

In December, Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6) was issued by the White House, which officially outlined the Nation’s Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion (SNPP).

“Space nuclear systems power spacecraft for missions where alternative power sources are inadequate, such as environments that are too dark for solar power or too far away to carry sufficient quantities of chemical fuels,” read a NASA statement outlining the directive. NASA says that nuclear power systems will play a key role in the future of space travel, but not only in terms of propulsions systems that will take humans further than we have ever traveled. Nuclear power will also be able to provide heating, and other forms of power apart from just propulsion of spacecraft.

“SPD-6 bolsters the agency’s efforts to develop affordable, safe, and reliable nuclear systems, including technology capable of continuously powering operations on other worlds and propelling future human missions to Mars,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement on December 16, 2020.

With multiple efforts underway to develop and harness nuclear power systems for use in orbit, the future of space exploration appears to be on a steady path that will employ the power of the atom to carry us to new heights and, eventually, entirely new worlds.

That once again brings us to the conclusion of this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief. Don’t forget to subscribe and get email updates from us here, or read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website. And as always, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] the debrief.org.

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