The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has just signed a $ 14 million contract to develop and test a thermal nuclear space propulsion (NTP) system.
The concept is simple: an on-board reactor generates heat, which is then pushed through a nozzle to produce propellants.
The contract, with a company called Gryphon Technologies, is meant to support the DARPA Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program – essentially a project that investigates whether extreme temperatures caused by nuclear reactions can be used as a propulsion system.
“A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap forward in space propulsion capacity, enabling agile and fast long-distance transit compared to current propulsion approaches,” Gryphon chief engineer Tabitha Dodsonsa said in a statement. statement. “We are proud to support DRACO and the development of NTP, a significant technological breakthrough in efforts to raise awareness of the Cislun space,” Gryphon CEO PJ Braden said in a statement. Space.com.
According to DARPA, an NTP system offers 10,000 times the force-to-weight ratio compared to electric propulsion, as well as two to five times the efficiency of chemical propulsion. The agency hopes that nuclear thermal propulsion will allow the US to keep pace with “maintaining awareness of the space field in the Cislunar space”.
NASA is pursuing a similar system for propelling its own spacecraft. Last year, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called NTP a potential “game changer” for the agency, with the potential to revolutionize space travel and allow trips and eventual landing on Mars.
Such a propulsion system could even allow the generation of artificial gravity during such long trips through space, according to NASA research dating back to 2014, to address the health issues surrounding long-term exposure to zero gravity.