Lockheed to develop nuclear-powered spaceship that could take humans to Mars

DRACO DAPRA NASA Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has been selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and demonstrate a nuclear-powered spacecraft. 

The project, called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), will also be overseen by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, as both agencies will benefit from this leading-edge technology.     

BWX Technologies also will play a role in the program by creating the nuclear fission reactor that will power the rocket engine. 

“Nuclear propulsion is a key capability on NASA’s roadmap to send astronauts to Mars. A nuclear-powered rocket would enable faster trips to the Red Planet, making missions less complex and safer for crew. This type of engine requires significantly less propellant than chemical rockets, so missions would be able to carry additional scientific equipment,” NASA said in a statement on July 26, 2023.  

The project will represent a rapid advancement in propulsion technology to benefit exploration and national defense. 

Lockheed Martin confirmed that the in-space flight demonstration of a nuclear thermal rocket engine vehicle will take place no later than 2027. 

Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engines offer thrust as high as conventional chemical propulsion with two-to-five times higher efficiency, which means the spacecraft can travel faster and farther and can significantly reduce propellant needs. 

They also enable abort scenarios on journeys to Mars that are not possible with chemical propulsion systems. 

“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 added: “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.” 

An NTP system uses 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 reactor will not be turned on until the spacecraft has reached a nuclear safe orbit, making the NTP system very safe. 

“In the past several years, BWXT has been maturing its nuclear thermal propulsion fuel and design, and we are excited to further expand into space with our ability to deliver nuclear products and capabilities to the U.S. Government, ” said Joe Miller, BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC president. “We look forward to building the reactor and manufacturing the fuel at our Lynchburg, Virginia, facilities.” 

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