NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to develop and test a nuclear-powered spacecraft under a project called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO).
DARPA partnered with NASA on the DRACO project, as both agencies will benefit from nuclear thermal rocket engines in space, which will one day allow NASA crewed missions to Mars. The in-space flight demonstration of the next-generation rocket engine is slated for 2027 at the latest.
"These more powerful and efficient nuclear thermal propulsion systems can provide faster transit times between destinations. Reducing transit time is vital for human missions to Mars to limit a crew's exposure to radiation," said Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space.
Shireman continued, "This is a prime technology that can be used to transport humans and materials to the Moon. A safe, reusable nuclear tug spacecraft would revolutionize cislunar operations. With more speed, agility and maneuverability, nuclear thermal propulsion also has many national security applications for cislunar space."
Lockheed explained the engines would use a "nuclear reactor to quickly heat hydrogen propellant to very high temperatures and then funnels that gas through the engine nozzle to create powerful thrust. The fission-based reactor will use a special high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, to convert the cryogenic hydrogen into an extremely hot pressurized gas." The new engines are expected to be used while in orbit.
Bloomberg said, "To date, there has been no in-space demonstration of nuclear thermal propulsion." However, NASA conducted ground-based nuclear thermal rocket engine tests more than a half-century ago.
This comes as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hinted in 2022, a crewed mission to Mars could happen in 2029.
2029— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 16, 2022
Will the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Starship utilize such technology for future long trips to Mars?