Pentagon’s Nuclear Rocket | What Is Nuclear Thermal Propulsion?

  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development division of the Department of Defense, has announced that a team will develop the world’s first Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) engine.
  • Nuclear thermal propulsion engines use fission to heat liquid hydrogen and inject it from the rear of the rocket to generate thrust.
  • The DRACO rocket would be used for transit between the earth and the moon, but would also enable faster transit through the solar system.

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development division of the Pentagon, is funding the construction of the world’s first NTP (Nuclear Thermal Propulsion) system for spacecraft.

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    The system, known as the Agile Cislunar Operations Demonstration Missile (DRACO), uses fission instead of traditional rocket fuel, making for a faster and more efficient space propulsion system. NASA sees NTP as the system that could get people to Mars and beyond.

    Earlier this week, DARPA announced that it had selected General Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin to build DRACO. The aim is to send DRACO into low-earth orbit in 2025.

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    NTP is a concept that has been around for a long time. The Department of Energy (DOE) explains it this way:

    NTP systems pump a liquid propellant, most likely hydrogen, through a reactor core. Uranium atoms split up in the nucleus and give off heat by splitting. This physical process heats the propellant and converts it into a gas that is expanded through a nozzle to create thrust.

    NTP is twice as efficient as chemical missiles because lighter gases – hydrogen typically used in NTP designs – are easier to accelerate. Chemical missiles produce heavier water vapor as a waste by-product.

    Scientists suggested NTP as early as the 1940s. By the 1960s, NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission had investigated the use of NTP missiles with the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program, but abandoned the project before engineers could build a working rocket. This is due to the discomfort of putting a reactor of highly enriched uranium – or plutonium – into orbit and the feeling that chemical missiles were good enough for a slower space program.

    Artist’s impression of a spacecraft equipped with nuclear thermal propulsion.

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    But now is the time for NTP.

    Previously, the prospect of a nuclear-powered spacecraft that exploded during launch and dispersed dangerous radioactive material in the United States – or worse, another country – made nuclear propulsion unsustainable. Modern designs, however, are based on safer, low-enriched uranium, which presents a lower environmental risk if a chemical booster missile carrying an NTP-equipped spacecraft suffers a catastrophic incident in the atmosphere.

    The Pentagon is also pushing for spacecraft that can be positioned in space faster than those equipped with chemical missiles. As the name suggests, DARPA provides that DRACO mainly operates in cislunar space or in the space between the earth and the moon. The higher thrust-to-weight ratio of NTP allows spacecraft to move faster over a larger area.

    If DRACO is successful, its technology could be used in the civil space sector. NASA believes NTP could cut the total time for Mars missions in half. DRACO would then join a long line of DARPA ideas, including internet and RNA-based vaccines, that were launched as military research and development projects that then brought tremendous benefits to the whole world.

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