April 15 (UPI) -- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded three contracts this week to design a nuclear thermal propulsion system that will operate above low Earth orbit in 2025.
The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program has the potential to achieve rapid maneuver in space, which has been challenging because current electric and chemical space propulsion systems have drawbacks in thrust-to-weight and propellent efficiency, respectively, according to the agency.
"This first phase of the DRACO program is a risk reduction effort that will enable us to sprint toward an on-orbit demonstration in later phases," said Maj. Nathan Greiner, USAF, program manager for DRACO, said in the release.
The first phase of the program will last 18 months and consist of two tracks: Track A, which will entail the preliminary design of an NTP reactor and propulsion subsystem concept, and Track B, which will produce an Operational System spacecraft concept to meet mission objectives and design a Demonstration System spacecraft concept.
General Atomics will work on Track A, and Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will independently perform the Track B work to develop OS and DS spacecraft designs.
Phase 1 is expected to inform follow-on phases for more detailed design, fabrication and on-orbit demonstration work, DARPA said.
Dollar amounts for the Blue Origin and Lockheed deals were not clear, but General Atomics' contract was for $22.2 million, according to a recent Pentagon announcement.