NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a collaboration on Tuesday to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, enabling NASA’s manned missions to Mars. NASA and DARPA will partner in the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program. Designed to benefit both agencies, the non-refundable agreement outlines roles, responsibilities and processes aimed at accelerating development efforts.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said “NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027. This new technology would allow astronauts to travel to and from deep space faster than ever before – a core capability. prepare for manned missions to Mars, we congratulate both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment as we ignite the future together”.
Nuclear thermal rocket
The use of a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transportation and reduces the risk to astronauts. Reducing transit time is a key part of human missions to Mars, as longer journeys require more supplies and more robust systems. Faster and more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon-to-Mars goals.
Additional benefits of space travel include increased scientific payload capacity and increased power for instrumentation and communications. In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to create extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant that expands and expels through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.
“NASA has a long history of working with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as space servicing,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Expanding our partnership to include nuclear propulsion will help advance NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars.”
Under the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Directorate (STMD) will lead the technical development of a nuclear thermal engine to be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA acts as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and engine, which also includes the reactor.
DARPA will lead the overall program including rocket systems integration and procurement, approval, planning and security, cover safety and liability, and provide overall engine assembly and integration with the spacecraft. During development, NASA and DARPA will work together to assemble the engine before a demonstration in space as early as 2027.
Tests of Nuclear thermal rocket engine
DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that first landed humans on the moon to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites. The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to make leaps and bounds in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be critical to more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and ultimately humans to Mars.
The last tests of a nuclear thermal rocket engine conducted by the United States took place more than 50 years ago as part of the NASA Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.
“Through this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous nuclear power and propulsion space projects,” said Jim Reuter, STMD Associate Administrator. “Recent advances in aerospace materials and engineering are enabling a new era of space-based nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major success in establishing a space transportation capability for the Earth-Moon economy.”
NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and industry are also developing advanced space nuclear technologies for various initiatives to harness energy for space exploration. Through NASA’s Fission Surface Power Project, DOE awarded three commercial design efforts to develop nuclear power plant concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and later Mars.
NASA and DOE are working on additional commercial design efforts to advance higher temperature fission fuel and reactor designs as part of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine. These design efforts are still in development to support the longer range objective to increase engine performance and will not be used for the DRACO engine.
Reference : https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-darpa-will-test-nuclear-engine-for-future-mars-missions
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