DARPA Nuclear Propulsion. DARPA selects General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin to Test Nuclear Propulsion in Low-Earth Orbit.

The U.S. Army has selected three companies to develop a nuclear heat engine or NTP system, which will be tested in space in 2025 to test the space technology in the lunar space between the earth and the moon.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected three large space companies for the first phase of a larger project to test a nuclear power plant in low Earth orbit by 2025.

General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin have received an order for the first phase of the DRACO (Agile Laurel Action Demonstration Rocket) program, amounting to $22 million, and Lockheed Martin with $2.9 million and Blue Origin’s order is $2.5 million.

DARPA said in a statement that the selection of these teams was based on their ability to design and deploy advanced systems for reactors, power plants, and spacecraft. The agency emphasized the need for “fast maneuvers” of military systems but said that it is difficult for traditional space systems to do this.

Also Read: Northrop Grumman to develop propulsion system to return samples from Mars.

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What is a Nuclear Propulsion?

The nuclear propulsion system includes various propulsion methods that use some form of nuclear reaction as the main energy source. The idea of ​​using core materials as engines can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. It was hypothesized in 1904 that the radioactive substance radium might be a suitable fuel for the propulsion engines of ships, cars, and airplanes. And a scientist put forward this idea in his 1914 novel “Freedom of the World”.

What is the Goal of the U.S Military Project?

NASA said in a statement that the main goal of its nuclear propulsion system will be to greatly reduce the time required for flight crews to fly between Earth and Mars. Using a chemical engine, the mission to Mars takes about seven months. NASA said it may take three to four months to install the NTP system, which will increase the number of trips and improve the safety of astronauts in future space travel.

What is NTP?

The US Department of Energy described on their official website that how the NTP system works. It requires radioactive material (such as uranium) and another element (such as liquid hydrogen). Liquid fuel is pumped through the reactor core to produce uranium atoms. The core decays and generates heat. The heat converts the fuel into gas, which expands through the holes and generates thrust.

The NTP engine has a higher energy density and is twice as efficient as a rocket engine said, Scientists. The flight demonstration order for NTP technology was awarded by the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The winners are General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin. DARPA did not announce any contract prices.

In its recently announced project announcement, DARPA stated that space or “space territories” field is critical to business, scientific discovery, and defense. In an interview, the agency said that “Knowing the surrounding lunar space will require the advancement of technological breakthroughs.”

The agency added that one of the most important capabilities of modern military operations is to enable armed forces to respond quickly to threats on the ground, sea, and air. However, it is difficult to do this in space, because the current spacecraft design lacks the necessary conditions like Speed ​​and driving force.

The project is called DRACO (Flexible Pre-Moon Action Demonstration Rocket), and the project will successfully demonstrate a functioning NTP system in low-Earth orbit by 2025. These companies will focus on the development and demonstration of reactor systems, propulsion systems, and spacecraft.

Air Force Major Nathan Greiner is the program manager of DRACO. The company’s statement said that “As part of the DRACO program, the NTP technology they hope to develop and demonstrate is essential to future space operations.”

In an interview DARPA said that the first part of the demonstration process will consist of two parts or “tracks” and this process will take 18 months.

The design of the NTP reactor and propulsion system was created on the first track. The second one will be used for demonstration purposes to create an “operating system spacecraft concept”. The initial development process focused on reducing operating system risks. And according to DARPA, the Demonstration process in Orbit will be held by 2025.

Discussions DARPA Nuclear Propulsion

The agency said in a statement: “Modern electrical and chemical space propulsion systems have shortcomings in terms of thrust weight and engine efficiency.” They added that the nuclear thermal propulsion system (NTP) is designed to solve these common problems.

The NTP system uses a fission reactor to heat fuel (such as hydrogen) to high temperatures by injecting gas at high speed through a pressure nozzle. The thrust-to-weight ratio of NTP is approximately 10,000 times that of propulsion, electricity, and fuel. DARPA officials wrote in the DRACO program description that this efficiency (also called a specific pulse) is 2 to 5 times faster than traditional chemical missiles.

The first phase of the plan includes two directions, and each company has its development direction. Passage A contains the draft of the nuclear thermal propulsion reactor and the propulsion subsystem. Orbit B will develop an “operating system spacecraft concept” to achieve future mission goals, including a demonstration system.

General Atomics is developing the A-channel reactor, while Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin have independently carried out the B-channel work, which has been added to DARPA. “The first phase of DRACO is expected to provide information on subsequent stages of detailed design, manufacturing, and on-orbit demonstrations. In an interview, it is said by the agency that, each additional stage will be proposed by DARPA in a future announcement.

Before DARPA’s announcement this month, DRACO had won a $14 million contract, which was awarded in September 2020 to Washington-based Company Gryphon Technologies, which provides engineering and technical solutions for national security organizations.

The NASA administration also previously expressed its interest in the potential of nuclear propulsion, especially in reducing the flight time to Mars by three to four months time duration compared with chemical propulsion. And they hope to bring astronauts to the “red planet” by the 2030s.

Also in an interview, they said that “This changes what NASA wants to achieve. As they traveled between Earth and Mars, and the former NASA Administrator Jim Bryant was at the 2019 National Space Council meeting.”


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long been interested in the nuclear propulsion of future spacecraft, but the technology has not been proven.

In an interview, NASA said that engineers have been considering NTP technology in recent years to assist future missions to the moon and Mars. NASA is also considering a related technology, namely nuclear power plant. This system uses fuel more efficiently than chemical missiles but has much less thrust than NTP.

NASA said they are cooperating with the US Department of Energy for design and development.


DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is a research and development agency of the US Department of Defense, and it is responsible for the development of new technologies for military use. Originally the agency was called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and President Dwight D. Eisenhower has established it in 1958 in response to the 1957 launch of the Soviet Union Satellite 1. The limitations of technology and science usually exceed immediate military requirements.

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