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DARPA asks industrial trio to develop nuclear propulsion

Paris, 13 April 2021. – The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin as prime contractors to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system in 2025.

The agency selected the industry team to design, develop and demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion system in space, above low Earth orbit, DARPA said. The demo is part of the first phase of its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.

“Rapid maneuver is a core tenet of modern Department of Defense (DoD) operations on land, at sea, and in the air,” the research agency said. “However, rapid maneuver 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.”

“DRACO’s NTP system has the potential to achieve high thrust-to-weight ratios similar to in-space chemical propulsion and approach the high propellent efficiency of electric systems,” DARPA says. “This combination would give a DRACO spacecraft greater agility to implement DoD’s core tenet of rapid maneuver in cislunar space (between the Earth and moon).”

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