NASA and DARPA Collaborate to Test Nuclear Thermal Engine

The collaboration between NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space was announced on Tuesday. This project will pave the way for NASA crewed missions to Mars.


The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program will be a joint effort between NASA and DARPA. The non-reimbursable agreement outlines roles, responsibilities, and processes to speed up development efforts.

“As early as 2027, NASA will work with its long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate cutting-edge nuclear thermal propulsion technology. This breakthrough technology made it possible for humans to travel to and from deep space more quickly than ever before, which was a crucial capability for preparing for crewed missions to Mars” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, stated.

A nuclear thermal rocket can move more quickly and further while putting humans at less risk. Cutting transit times is crucial for human trips to Mars because longer voyages need more supplies and more robust technology. With the advancement of faster, more efficient transportation technology, NASA will be able to accomplish its Moon to Mars goal.

NASA’s history of collaborating with DARPA

Two additional benefits of space travel include a larger science payload capacity and more powerful instrumentation and communication systems. The engine, which transforms reactor heat into a liquid propellant and expands it before exhausting it through a nozzle, drives the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can surpass traditional chemical propulsion in terms of efficiency by a factor of three or more.

“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. “Our partnership’s expansion to nuclear propulsion will advance NASA’s mission to Mars.”

NASA’s Agreement Space Technology Mission Directorate

According to the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate would be responsible for the technical development of the nuclear thermal engine for DARPA’s experimental spacecraft (STMD). In its capacity as the contracting authority, DARPA is in charge of developing the entire stage and engine, which includes the reactor. DARPA will be in charge of overseeing the entire program, including the integration and procurement of rocket systems, approvals, scheduling, and security, as well as safety and liability coverage. It will also oversee the complete assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft. Additionally, it will supervise the engine’s integration with the spacecraft and the whole assembly. Throughout the entire development process, NASA and DARPA will collaborate on engine assembly before the in-space demonstration as early as 2027.

“DARPA and NASA have a long history of successful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective objectives, from the Saturn V rocket that launched the first humans to the Moon through robotic satellite maintenance and refueling,” said Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director, of DARPA. “Modern business, scientific progress, and national security all rely on the space domain. The DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program’s capacity to make significant advances in space technology will be crucial for more effective and speedily information packages to the Moon and, eventually, people to Mars.”

Moon to Mars

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

Jim Reuter, the associate administrator for STMD, stated that “with this collaboration, we will harness our expertise gathered from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion programs.” This flight demonstration will be a great achievement in establishing a space transportation capacity for an Earth-Moon economy because recent developments in aerospace materials and engineering are opening up a new era for space nuclear technology.

Advanced space nuclear technologies are also developed by NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and businesses for several efforts to harvest power for space exploration. The DOE granted three commercial design initiatives to create nuclear power plant designs that may be used on the surface of the Moon and, subsequently, Mars, through NASA’s Fission Surface Power project.

As part of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine, NASA and DOE are advancing higher-temperature fission fuels and reactor designs through another commercial design project. These design efforts are not going to implement for the DRACO engine, currently, they developed to meet a longer-term objective for improved engine performance.

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