General Atomics Awarded DARPA Contract to Design Nuclear Thermal Propulsion System for DRACO Mission


SAN DIEGO. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) announced on April 16 that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded GA-EMS a contract to support the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.


GA-EMS will lead the design of a novel Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system that will allow a rocket to operate in cislunar space, the region outside of Earth’s atmosphere to just past the moon’s orbit.

“We are excited to support DARPA in defining the next evolution of propulsion technology, critical to maintaining space domain awareness in the cislunar region and beyond,” stated Scott Forney, president of GA-EMS. “GA-EMS is uniquely positioned to support this effort because we have capabilities and heritage in both nuclear reactor systems and space systems, the combination of which is required to execute the DRACO mission.”


The goal of the DRACO program is to demonstrate an NTP system on orbit by 2025. To date, the SNAP-10A reactor has been the only U.S. nuclear power reactor launched into space, for which General Atomics was directly involved in nuclear fuel testing and characterization.

Over the next 18 months, GA-EMS will deliver a preliminary design of the NTP system in order to demonstrate and ensure the system is operationally effective and able to be built and validated in low-earth orbit within the next five years.

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“We know what it takes to design and build safe, mission-specific reactors, as exemplified by our more than 66 TRIGA® (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactors around the world that are widely regarded as some of the safest reactors ever built,” said Dr. Christina Back, vice president of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at GA-EMS.

“GA-EMS’ expertise in state-of-the-art nuclear fuels and advanced materials are key components to the NTP design to create a highly efficient and exceptionally safe propulsion system. Combined with our in-house capabilities to fabricate these components and others, we can ensure delivery of a superior NTP reactor on orbit and on time.”