Lockheed Martin, BWXT to Build Nuclear-Powered Spacecraft, Engine

Illustration of a the DRACO spacecraft being developed by Lockheed Martin for DARPA that will demonstrate thermal nuclear engine technology.

Washington: The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA selected Lockheed Martin and BWX Technologies to develop an experimental nuclear propulsion system that could provide a more efficient power source for future in-orbit manoeuvring and Mars-bound spacecraft.

The companies are teamed for the agency’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations effort, or DRACO. Lockheed is designing a spacecraft that can carry an experimental nuclear reactor engine and fuel developed by Virginia-based BWXT. The goal is to demonstrate the nuclear thermal rocket engine in orbit in 2027.

“With a successful demonstration, we could significantly advance humanity’s means for going faster and farther in space and pave the way for the future deployment for all fission-based nuclear space technologies,” Tabitha Dodson, DARPA’s program manager for the effort, said in a July 26 statement.

Lockheed and BWXT were chosen from a pool of contractors that included General Atomics, Blue Origin and Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies who were maturing designs through work led by DARPA and NASA.

DARPA is taking the lead on space vehicle development, integration, nuclear regulatory requirements and launch. NASA, which expects the capability could support its plan to send humans to Mars by the late 2030s, oversees the engine portion of the program.

The agencies gave no value for the contracts, though Dodson told reporters during a July 26 phone briefing that the government plans to spend $499 million to design, fabricate and fly the system – half of which will come from DARPA and the other half from NASA. The companies have also contributed internal funding to the program, but neither provided details when asked.

Nuclear thermal rockets are similar to ground-based systems that rely on fission, or the separation of atoms, to create electricity. The heat generated in that process can turn liquid rocket propellant to gas, enabling more efficient manoeuvres in space.

Dodson likened in-space nuclear propulsion to the sea-based reactors the Navy relies upon. The government has explored nuclear propulsion for spacecraft in the past, most notably through NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications, or NERVA. The engine passed several ground test milestones but never took flight and the program was cancelled in 1973.

DRACO will build on NERVA’s legacy, Dodson said, but with a new fuel source called high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU. Dodson noted that as a safety measure DARPA will design the reactor to remain inactive until it reaches orbit.

Congressional support for nuclear propulsion has grown in recent years, with lawmakers directing NASA invest more funding in engine development efforts. Given that support and the maturity of the technology, Dodson said, it’s imperative for the government to move forward with demonstration efforts like DRACO.

“I personally believe we have an obligation now to take advantage of this moment in time with the DRACO program,” she said. “We have a window of opportunity and political support and therefore funding to finally advance nuclear thermal propulsion for our nation and for the future of humanity.”