DARPA is looking for proposals for Phase 2 and 3 of Demonstration rocket for agile cislunar operations (DRACO) for the design, development, manufacture and assembly of a nuclear thermal rocket engine – the objective is to execute a flight demonstration in space of nuclear thermal propulsion during the financial year 2026.
The overall objective of DRAGON is to enable urgent missions over vast distances in cislunar space, the area between the Earth and the Moon. Nuclear thermal propulsion achieves a high thrust-to-weight ratio, similar to chemical propulsion, but with two to five times greater efficiency using systems that are both faster and smaller than electrical and chemical systems, respectively. These propulsive capabilities will allow the United States to strengthen its interests in space and expand the possibilities of NASA’s long-duration human spaceflight missions.
Phase 1 of the DRACO program included two parallel risk reduction activities. Track A focused on developing a preliminary design for the rocket engine reactor. Track B focused on developing a conceptual plan for the in-orbit demonstration system.
The planned Phases 2 and 3 of DRACO will focus on the development and demonstration of the operation of the nuclear thermal rocket engine in orbit. The agency’s general announcement can be found at sam.gov.
“The United States uses the maneuver to maintain its advantages in the land, sea and air domains. However, maneuvering is more difficult in space due to propulsion system limitations“, said Major Nathan Greiner, program manager in DARPA’s Office of Tactical Technology. “To maintain technological superiority in space, the United States needs advanced propulsion technology that the DRACO program will provide.”