The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) continues to pressure the development of a nuclear propulsion system and after starting a program called DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), engaging two major companies such as Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin in the development of two concept vehicles, as well as General Atomics which should have developed a preliminary engine based on this technology, now looks to the next phase and wants to arrive to tangible results within a reasonable time.
The next phase of the program will be more concrete and will focus on the design, development, manufacture and assembly of a thermal rocket nuclear engine, but this time the competition will also be open to other realities and not only to the companies that participated in the first phase, sign perhaps that what was promised by General Atomics and the other two partners was not respected. The proposals for interested companies expire on August 5 and apparently the goal is to get there at a flight demonstration of a vehicle equipped with a nuclear thermal propulsion engine by 2026.
DARPA’s goal is to find a solution that allows you to cover greater distances in less time and facilitate the exploration of space, therefore it is not surprising that NASA also participates in the project and is interested in the use of nuclear thermal propulsion, for example for reach Mars or other planets of the solar system in more reasonable times than today. With nuclear propulsion, the aim is to at least halve the timing, making it possible for example to reach the red planet in just 3 months.
But how does nuclear propulsion work in a spacecraft? The basic principle is similar to that of a chemical rocket and for more details you can read our special above, but the main difference is that in a nuclear propulsion system you aim for transferring the heat generated by a reactor to a liquid propellant, such as hydrogen, which thus passing to the gaseous phase expands and is then channeled through a nozzle to generate thrust. The advantage of such a solution lies not only in the increased thrust capacity but above all in the efficiency, a real weak point of the chemical systems currently in use.