US Darpa awards contracts for Draco programme

22 June 2021

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) said on 11 June that it had recently awarded contracts to General Atomics (Track A, $22M) and Blue Origin (Track B, $2.5M) with Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) providing critical support to both prime contractors in the first phase of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (Draco) programme. Draco will develop a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for cislunar operations, targeting a full-scale, on-orbit demonstration in 2025. USNC-Tech is the only company participating in both Track A and Track B teams.

With its two partners, USNC-Tech will create a pathway to the first on-orbit demonstration of an NTP system in history. Over the course of 18 months, the teams will develop the foundational NTP reactor and spacecraft concept designs for Draco. Phase 1 will consist of two tracks: Track A, focused on the baseline design of the NTP reactor, and Track B, focused on the operational spacecraft upon which to demonstrate it. Subsequent phases will lead to the detailed design, manufacture, ground tests, and an in-space demonstration of the Draco NTP system.

“This is a remarkable moment for NTP development and for our company,” said Dr Paolo Venneri, Executive Vice President of USNC-Tech. “Our selection to participate in not one but two teams for the Draco programme shows the strength of our ability to design and analyse these high-performance systems.”

Activity in cislunar space is rising as space agencies and companies around the world pursue new lunar ambitions, Darpa said. To ensure the accessibility of cislunar space for US government and commercial activities, the US Department of Defense (DOD) must develop new degrees of orbital mobility. Draco will provide an entirely new propulsion technology capable of outpacing and outmaneuvering existing propulsion systems. The high thrust-to-weight ratios and degree of propellant efficiency characteristic of NTP systems will enable rapid-response capabilities, a core principle of the DOD’s general strategy, throughout cislunar space, Darpa noted. Draco ensures the DOD’s NTP system will be ready for deployment as commercial capabilities solidify and as American astronauts return to the Moon.

“The United States must emerge as the leader in cislunar space, and our innovative NTP technologies will empower our commercial, NASA, and national security customers to accomplish just that,” said Dr Michael Eades, Director of Engineering at USNC-Tech and company lead for reactor development in Track B.

As highlighted in the recent study of space nuclear propulsion systems completed by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, some of Draco’s technological achievements could contribute to NASA’s development of an NTP system for its first human missions to Mars. By requiring the use of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) in Draco, DOD will support the maturation of critical technologies, supply chains, and talent pools directly applicable to the NTP system that NASA is partnering with the Department of Energy (DOE) to produce.

“Even with the difference in scale of engine and spacecraft, a successfully demonstrated Draco NTP can directly influence and speed up demonstration of a NASA NTP,” said Dr Vishal Patel, Analysis Lead at USNC-Tech and company lead for spacecraft development in Track A.

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