What is DRACO Program?
- DRACO stands for Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations.
- It aims to leverage nuclear reactions to significantly reduce travel time, making interplanetary missions more efficient and safer.
- The spacecraft will orbit at an altitude of approximately 700 to 1,994 kilometers, staying in orbit for over 300 years to ensure safe decay of radioactive elements.
How it is different from conventional spacecraft?
- DRACO, a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) utilizes a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before exhausting the hot propellant through a nozzle to produce thrust.
- Compared to conventional space propulsion technologies, NTRs offer a high thrust-to-weight ratio.
- This thrust is around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion, and a specific impulse (i.e., propellant efficiency) two-to-five times greater than in-space chemical propulsion.
Benefits of DRACO
- Shorter Journey to Mars: With nuclear-powered propulsion, astronauts could reach Mars in just three to four months, cutting the current travel time in half. The spacecraft could continue accelerating through the first half of the journey and then start slowing down again, reducing the need for extensive propellant storage.
- Enhanced Fuel Efficiency: Nuclear reactions, using the splitting of uranium atoms, are far more efficient than conventional rocket engines that rely on fuel combustion. The DRACO engine features a nuclear reactor that heats hydrogen gas to generate thrust, offering greater fuel efficiency for interplanetary travel.
- Reduced Exposure to Deep Space: Faster journeys to Mars would minimize astronauts’ exposure to the harsh environment of deep space, reducing potential risks and health hazards.
Nuclear Propulsion: Historical Context
- Legacy: The concept of nuclear propulsion for space is not new. In the 1950s and 1960s, Project Orion explored using atomic bomb explosions to accelerate spacecraft. NASA’s Project Rover and Project NERVA in the same era aimed to develop nuclear-thermal engines for space missions.
- Advancements in Safety Protocols: Unlike earlier nuclear propulsion projects, DRACO uses a less-enriched form of uranium and incorporates advanced safety protocols. The reactor will only be activated in space to minimize the risk of a radioactive accident on Earth.
Potential Applications and Future Testing:
- Military Satellite Maneuvers: DARPA’s investment in the DRACO program indicates potential military applications, such as enabling rapid maneuvers of military satellites in Earth’s orbit.
- Nuclear-Thermal Engine Test: Lockheed Martin plans to launch the demonstration spacecraft in late 2025 or early 2026.