NASA and DARPA Award Contract for a Nuclear Engine to Lockheed Martin

Artist's concept of a Lockheed design for a DRACO nuclear-powered demonstration spacecraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in the coming decade. This presents many challenges, not the least of which is the distance involved and the resulting health risks. To this end, they are investigating and investing in many technologies, ranging from life support and radiation protection to nuclear power and propulsion elements. A particularly promising technology is Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP), which has the potential to reduce transit times to Mars significantly. Instead of the usual one-way transit period of six to nine months, a working NTP system could reduce the travel time to between 100 and 45 days!

In January of this year, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that they were launching an interagency agreement to develop a nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) system – known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). Just yesterday, DARPA announced that it had finalized an agreement with Lockheed Martin to design and build a prototype NTR system – the Experimental NTR Vehicle (X-NTRV) – that will be sent to space for testing by 2027.

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