The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is preparing to take the next step in developing a nuclear missile to help monitor and enable time-critical missions across vast distances in lunar, Earth and Moon space, an area deemed a high strategic priority.
DARPA announced May 4 that it is seeking proposals for the second and third phases of its Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) missile test program, which includes the design, manufacture and assembly of thermonuclear rocket engines.
The goal is to conduct a spaceflight demonstration of thermonuclear propulsion in fiscal year 2026, according to the same agency. In a press release.
“These propulsion capabilities will allow the United States to advance its interests in space and expand the capabilities of NASA’s long-duration human spaceflight missions,” DARPA officials said.
The second and third phases of the Draco program
The first phase of the program focused on initial designs for rocket engine reactors and a conceptual display system in orbit. Phase Two will complete designs for a demonstration system and validate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTR) flight engine for use in Earth and Moon space, while Phase III will build an experimental system to conduct a full-capacity orbital flight test and carry out said test.
The agency explained that its interest in the technology lies in the fact that thermal nuclear propulsion, compared to electric propulsion systems, achieves a high thrust-to-weight ratio, approximately 10,000 times greater. On the other hand, compared to conventional chemical propulsion, it is two to five times more efficient, using faster and smaller systems than electrical and chemical systems, respectively.
Thermonuclear propulsion for missions to Mars
In addition to enabling time-critical missions across vast distances in lunar space, NASA will also be interested in thermonuclear propulsion for its Mars missions due to its ability to reach the Red Planet in half the current six to nine months possible with current power generation, reports space.com.
“The United States uses maneuverability to maintain advantages in the land, sea, and air domains. However, maneuvering is more difficult in space due to propulsion system limitations,” said Commander Nathan Greener, program manager in the DARPA Office of Tactical Technology.
“To maintain technological superiority in space, the United States needs the latest propulsion technologies that the Draco program will provide,” he added.
Edited by Felipe Espinosa Wang.
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