The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Gryphon Technologies $14 million to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for the U.S. military. Part of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, the High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system will be used to enable the military to carry out missions in cislunar space, meaning the area between the Earth and the orbit of the moon.
“A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap ahead in space-propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches,” Tabitha Dodson, Gryphon’s chief engineer on the support team and a national expert in NTP systems, said in a statement.
The militarization of space, this time largely involving the United States and China, has been in the news in recent years in a way that it hasn’t since the decades-old Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviets. The idea of using Nuclear Thermal Propulsion to power spacecraft is that a nuclear reactor utilized to heat a propellant like hydrogen to extreme temperatures, prior to expelling it via a nozzle in order to create thrust, could be significantly more efficient than current chemical rockets. It would also have a thrust-to-weight ratio that is reportedly 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion.
The concept of using nuclear reactors in space is not new, but this effort from DARPA shows just how seriously it is now being taken here in 2020.
“Gryphon is committed to providing high-end technical solutions to our nation’s most critical national security challenges,” said P.J. Braden, CEO of Gryphon, in a statement. “We are proud to support DRACO and the development and demonstration of NTP, a significant technological advancement in efforts to achieve cislunar space awareness.”
No timeline has been given for when we should expect a nuclear reactor to power next-gen spacecraft. One thing’s for sure, though: Between this, the rise of Space Force, NASA commissioning private companies to retrieve space resources, and the continued work of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, space exploration is about as fast-moving and full of promise as it’s been in many years.