NASA partners with Pentagon for atomic spacecraft

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DARPA will work with the US Space Agency to develop a nuclear-powered Mars spacecraft

The US space agency announced on Tuesday that it is reviving a 1960s collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aimed at developing a nuclear-powered spacecraft to travel to the moon and Mars.

“NASA will work with our longtime partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027.” Administrator Bill Nelson said, adding that the two agencies “Ignite the future together.”

While NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will be in charge of “technical development for the nuclear heat engine”, the Pentagon research division will be the prime contractor for the development of the reactor and engine. The future ship has been dubbed the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO.

NASA and DARPA hope one “demonstration in space” spaceship and engine “from 2027.”

DARPA Director Stefanie Tompkins noted that the two agencies have a “a long history of fruitful cooperation”, from the Saturn V rocket used by the 1960s Apollo lunar program to modern satellite refueling.

The DRACO program will allow this “massive advances in space technology” in a field that “essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national security”, added Tomkins.

A nuclear heat engine would use a fission reactor to heat a liquid propellant in a process “three times or more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion”, according to NASA. Although it has been decades since NASA attempted to develop such an engine, “Recent advances in aerospace materials and engineering enable a new era for nuclear space technology,” said STMD Associate Administrator Jim Reuter.

Project Orion, a joint venture between NASA and DARPA in the 1960s, envisioned a spacecraft powered by targeted explosions from nuclear fission bombs. To secure military funding, the project also attempted a “space battleship”, an orbital nuclear missile platform for the Pentagon.

Orion was discontinued for practical and legal reasons. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty banned the testing of nuclear weapons in space, while the 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and beyond.


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