DARPA awards contracts for rapid cislunar maneuver demonstration program

By Courtney Albon / April 14, 2021 at 1:16 PM

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has chosen three prime contractors to help develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for a planned 2025 demonstration above low-Earth orbit.

The agency announced this week it has awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin as part of its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.

According to an April 12 DARPA press release, General Atomics, which received a $22 million contract, will develop a preliminary design of a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor and propulsion subsystem concept. Lockheed received a $2.9 million contract and Blue Origin a $2.5 million contract, and both companies will develop operational and demonstration system spacecraft concepts.

"The performer teams have demonstrated capabilities to develop and deploy advanced reactor, propulsion and spacecraft systems," DRACO Program Manager Maj. Nathan Greiner said in the press release. "The NTP technology we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO program aims to be foundational to future operations in space."

The goal of DRACO is to demonstrate the potential for rapid maneuver in space, traditionally a challenge due to thrust-to-weight ratios and propellent efficiency of current systems, according to DARPA.

"DRACO's NTP system has the potential to achieve high thrust-to-weight ratios similar to in-space chemical propulsion and approach the high propellent efficiency of electric systems," the release states. "This combination would give a DRACO spacecraft greater agility to implement DOD's core tenet of rapid maneuver in cislunar space."

DRACO is divided into multiple phases, and this week’s contracts were for the first, which is focused on risk reduction to inform future design, fabrication and demonstration phases.