NASA And DARPA To Develop Nuclear Rocket Engines For Mars

Partnership between NASA and DARPA seeks to develop nuclear thermal rocket engine for upcoming Mars missions

Spacecraft carrying astronauts to Mars could in future be powered by a nuclear thermal rocket engine.

It comes after NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on Tuesday a collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, an enabling capability for NASA crewed missions to Mars.

The space race to the moon and Mars is heating up. After years of delays, NASA’s Artemis I mission arrived at the Moon in November, with its uncrewed Orion spacecraft passing 130 km above the lunar surface.

Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology could be used for future NASA crewed missions to Mars.
Image credit NASA/DARPA.

Nuclear engine

The Artemis II mission, scheduled for 2024, is planned to take humans through a similar flight path, after which Artemis III is intended to bring humans to the surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Looking ahead to missions much further away than the moon, NASA and DARPA announced this week they will partner on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program.

The non-reimbursable agreement is designed to benefit both agencies, outlines roles, responsibilities, and processes aimed at speeding up development efforts.

“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” said Nelson. “Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.”

The thinking is that using a nuclear thermal rocket will allow for faster transit time to planets such as Mars, reducing risk for astronauts.

Reducing transit time is a key component for human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon to Mars Objectives.

Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication.

With a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft, said NASA.

Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.

“NASA has a long history of collaborating with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as in-space servicing,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Expanding our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help drive forward NASA’s goal to send humans to Mars.”

Engine development

So what is next?

Well under the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine to be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft.

DARPA is acting as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and the engine, which includes the reactor. DARPA will lead the overall program and over the course of the development, NASA and DARPA will collaborate on assembly of the engine before the in-space demonstration as early as 2027.

“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites,” said Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director, DARPA.

“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security,” said Dr. Tompkins. “The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.”

The last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests conducted by the United States occurred more than 50 years ago under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.

“With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects,” added Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD.

“Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.”