The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has given Gryphon Technologies $ 14 million to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for the U.S. military. As part of the DRACO (DARPA Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program, the NTP (High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium) (HALEU) system is used to enable the military to carry out missions in cislunar space on Earth and the Orbit of the moon.
“A successfully demonstrated NTP system will enable a leap into space propulsion capabilities and, compared to current propulsion approaches, enable agile and fast transit over long distances,”
The militarization of space, which this time around mainly the United States and China, has been in the news for the last few years as it has not been since the decades-long US-Soviet space race. The idea of using Nuclear Thermal Propulsion to power spacecraft is that a nuclear reactor, used to heat a propellant like hydrogen to extreme temperatures before being ejected through a nozzle to generate thrust, could be far more efficient than current chemical missiles. It would also have a thrust-to-weight ratio that is reportedly 10,000 times greater than the electric propulsion.
The concept of using nuclear reactors in space is not new, but these efforts by DARPA show how seriously it is being taken here in 2020 now.
“Gryphon is committed to providing high-end technical solutions to our country’s major national security challenges,” said PJ Braden, CEO of Gryphon, in a statement. “We are proud to support DRACO and the development and demonstration of NTP, a significant technological advance in cislunar awareness efforts.”
No schedule was given for when a nuclear reactor would power next-generation spacecraft. One thing is certain, however, between the rise of the Space Force, NASA’s mandate to outsource the retrieval of space resources to private companies, and the continued work of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, space exploration is about as fast and promising as it has been in many years.