Lockheed Martin has been awarded a contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and demonstrate a nuclear-powered spacecraft known as Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). This project, which is being conducted in partnership with NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, will represent a major advancement in propulsion technology. The in-space flight demonstration of the nuclear thermal rocket engine vehicle is scheduled to take place no later than 2027.
Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engines offer thrust as high as conventional chemical propulsion with two-to-five times higher efficiency, allowing for faster transit times between destinations, reduced propellant needs, and the ability to abort journeys to Mars that are not possible with chemical propulsion systems. Lockheed Martin has partnered with BWX Technologies to develop the nuclear reactor and produce the HALEU fuel for the NTP system.
Lockheed Martin has a long history of expertise in nuclear controls and has built many of NASA's radioisotope thermoelectric generators for planetary missions. The company has also invested heavily in cryogenic hydrogen storage and transfer, which is key technology for both NTP and conventional propulsion systems.
The DRACO project will enable humans to travel to Mars more efficiently and safely, and will also have many national security applications for cislunar space. Lockheed Martin is committed to advancing space exploration and national defense through this leading edge technology.