Advanced Development Agency DARPA, together with a number of third-party organizations, begins preliminary design for the DRACO program. Its goal is to create a promising spacecraft with a nuclear rocket engine. With the help of such technology, the army will be able to obtain fundamentally new logistics and other capabilities.
Currently, the Pentagon is working on the concept of "fast maneuver in the space between the Earth and the Moon." Complexes and systems for various purposes are proposed, capable of quickly placing the required load into orbit and solving certain arising problems. In this case, special requirements are imposed on the characteristics of the launch vehicle and the ship with a payload. It is the latter that is proposed to be developed within the framework of the new program.
The program was named DRACO - Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations ("Demonstration rocket for flexible operations within the orbit of the moon"). As the name implies, while we are talking about the rocket-space complex-technology demonstrator. The first launch of a rocket and a ship of a new type is going to be carried out no later than 2025.
A key issue in the DARPA program is the choice of propulsion system. DARPA believes that modern chemical and future electric rocket engines have an unfavorable ratio of key characteristics, and therefore are not quite suitable for use in "fast maneuver".
A way out of this situation should be a nuclear rocket engine (NRM), designated as Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP). Especially for DRACO, it is proposed to develop such a motor with a given level of performance. It is assumed that the NRE with a high specific power and high efficiency will give the ship the required characteristics.
In several stages
The search for future project participants began last year. It was reported about the imminent signing of contracts with large organizations with extensive experience in the rocket and space sector. The possibility of attracting small organizations with the necessary competencies was not excluded. Recently, the search process culminated in the signing of contracts with contractors.
On April 12, DARPA announced the start of DRACO's design work and the selection of contractors. The development of new technologies and units will be carried out by General Atomics, Gryphon Technologies, Blue Origins and Lockheed Martin. They are given various kinds of tasks, incl. quite complex.
Earlier it was reported that the DRACO program will be divided into several stages, each of which will solve its own problems. The first of them, starting right now, will last 18 months and will end in the fall of next year.
It is divided into two main directions, in the course of which various tasks will be solved. The aim of the project "Track A" is to create the definition of the general appearance of the propulsion system based on NTP and the subsequent development of the preliminary design. General Atomics becomes the Contractor for Track A. The main components of the reactor will be developed by Gryphon Technologies.
Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will operate in parallel on Track B. They have to develop two projects of spaceships. The first to do the so-called. Demonstration System (DS) demo for testing. Then, on its basis, an Operational System (OS) product will be created, designed for full-fledged operation.
It is noted that the DS and OS projects are not the main components of the program. The main focus in the near future will be on the NTP nuclear propulsion system. It is necessary to find the necessary technologies and form the main features of its design. Also, DARPA and contractors will have to work out security issues.
DARPA is already announcing the next stages of the program, but it dispenses with unnecessary details. By next autumn, the appearance of the rocket and space system will be formed, after which the development of a full-fledged project will start. The first start is scheduled for 2025. For obvious reasons, the developers of DRACO cannot yet reveal all the technical aspects of the project.
The available data on the DRACO project allows us to imagine what the new American rocket and space system will be like - and why it is of great interest to the Pentagon, represented by DARPA. Such a system would include a carrier rocket, probably of one of the existing types, and a special spacecraft of a new development.
One of the concepts of a nuclear powered spacecraft
For takeoff and entry into the calculated orbit DRACO will use a "traditional" booster rocket with a chemical fuel rocket engine. Despite all the benefits and precautions, NRE is too dangerous for use within the earth's atmosphere. The ship will only be able to launch its own engine in outer space.
Gryphon Technologies offers a modern NRP design based on the well-known concept of a gaseous propellant engine. In such an engine, hydrogen must enter the core, receive thermal energy, and exit through the nozzle, creating thrust. This principle has already been used in experimental projects of the past, and in the new project it is planned to use modern solutions in the field of structures and technologies.
It is planned to obtain several main advantages through the use of NRE. A nuclear engine is much more compact and lighter than a liquid plant with the same thrust indicators, and also does not need large tanks for fuel and oxidizer. The use of atomic energy provides significant advantages in all basic characteristics. However, NRE is difficult and expensive to manufacture, and its use is associated with a number of important limitations. An accident with the destruction of the core threatens the most serious consequences.
DARPA and the Pentagon indicate that the DRACO rocket and space system will be used for various operations in space within the orbit of the Moon. DRACO will differ from existing spacecraft in greater flexibility and efficiency of use. At the same time, the US military does not name specific tasks that such a system will face.
Perhaps the list of future responsibilities of the new ship with NRE has not yet been determined, and tasks for it will be searched for at the next stages of the program. However, it cannot be ruled out that the Pentagon already has the most serious plans for this development, but does not consider it necessary to disclose them.
NASA is also showing interest in systems with NRE - they can be useful for non-military space exploration. The DRACO-like system is expected to facilitate scientific missions such as flights to the Moon or Mars. In the latter case, according to calculations, a nuclear engine will reduce the flight duration by half.
However, it is too early for the Pentagon and NASA to plan the practical use of a promising rocket and space system. In the coming years, DARPA and a team of contracting organizations will focus on building the theoretical and technological base, as well as designing new products. If the DRACO program does not face serious problems, then the first test flight will be carried out in 2025 - and only by that time the real prospects of the project in its current form will be clear.