DARPA will work with the US space agency to develop a nuclear-powered Mars vessel
Artist concept of the Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft with a nuclear thermal rocket engine. © DARPA via NASA
The US space agency announced on Tuesday that it was reviving a 1960s partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aiming to develop a nuclear-powered spaceship for travel to the moon and Mars.
“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027,” Administrator Bill Nelson said, adding that the two agencies will “ignite the future, together.”
While NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will be in charge of the “technical development for the nuclear thermal engine,” the Pentagon’s research branch will be the main contractor for developing the reactor and the engine. The future vessel was dubbed the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO.
NASA and DARPA hope to have an “in-space demonstration” of the spaceship and the engine “as early as 2027.”
DARPA director Stefanie Tompkins noted that the two agencies have a “long history of fruitful collaboration,” from the Saturn V rocket used by the 1960s Apollo moon program to satellite refueling in modern times.
The DRACO program will enable “leap-ahead advances in space technology” in a domain that is “critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security,” Tompkins added.