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NASA, DARPA partner for nuclear space rocket test

Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine, with the project being jointly run by NASA and DARPA, the two agencies confirmed Tuesday. Image courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine, with the project being jointly run by NASA and DARPA, the two agencies confirmed Tuesday. Image courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Jan. 24 (UPI) -- NASA is partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to demonstrate the use of a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, the two agencies announced in a statement Tuesday.

The two hope the mutually-beneficial arrangement will eventually lead to faster, safer space missions, powered by nuclear technology.

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The test could occur as early as 2027.

DARPA falls under command of the U.S. Department of Defense, and is responsible for developing new and emerging technologies.

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The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, is meant to speed up development and define roles as both agencies look to a future that includes nuclear-powered rockets.

The United States last conducted a nuclear thermal rocket engine test more than 50 years ago. Those were conducted as part of NASA's then Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.

NASA said Tuesday it hopes the new test will eventually allow it to more quickly achieve objectives for its return to the moon's surface, as well as future missions to Mars.

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"DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites," DARPA director Dr. Stefanie Tompkins said in a statement.

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"The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the moon and eventually, people to Mars."

The overall program is being led by DARPA. However, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will take the lead when it comes to developing the nuclear thermal engine. That engine will eventually be fitted aboard an experimental spacecraft, produced by DARPA.

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"Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-moon economy," NASA STMD director Jim Reuter said in a statement.

In 2021, DARPA awarded three contracts as part of a separate nuclear thermal propulsion system. That system is expected to operate in low Earth orbit in 2025.

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