General Atomics wins NTP system contract for DRACO project

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded San Diego, California-based General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) a US$22 million contract to support phase 1 of the agency’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme.

The goal of the DRACO programme is to have a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system in low-earth orbit by 2025.

Apart from General Atomics, the two other prime contractors in the DRACO programme are Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin.

DARPA is a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defence responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the US military.

GA-EMS will lead the design of a novel NTP system that will allow a rocket to operate in cislunar space, the region between the Earth and the Moon.

Phase 1

Phase 1 of the DRACO programme will last 18 months and consist of two tracks.

Track A will entail the preliminary design of an NTP reactor and propulsion subsystem concept.

Track B will produce an Operational System (OS) spacecraft concept to meet mission objectives and design a Demonstration System (DS) spacecraft concept.

The DS will be traceable to the OS concept, but specifically focus on demonstrating an NTP propulsion subsystem.

General Atomics will perform the Track A reactor development work.

Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will independently perform the Track B work to develop OS and DS spacecraft concept designs.

Subsequent phases

DRACO’s Phase 1 is expected to inform follow-on phases for detailed design, fabrication, and on-orbit demonstration.

General Atomics was directly involved in nuclear fuel testing and characterisation of the SNAP-10A reactor, which is to date, the only American nuclear power reactor launched into space.

Scott Forney, President of GA-EMS, said: “We are excited to support DARPA in defining the next evolution of propulsion technology, critical to maintaining space domain awareness in the cislunar region and beyond.

“GA-EMS is uniquely positioned to support this effort because we have capabilities and heritage in both nuclear reactor systems and space systems, the combination of which is required to execute the DRACO mission,” Forney added.

Dr. Christina Back, Vice President of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at GA-EMS, said: “GA-EMS’ expertise in state-of-the-art nuclear fuels and advanced materials are key components to the NTP design to create a highly efficient and exceptionally safe propulsion system.

“Combined with our in-house capabilities to fabricate these components and others, we can ensure delivery of a superior NTP reactor on orbit and on time,” Back added.

GA-EMS Group is a global leader in the research, design, and manufacture of first-of-a-kind electromagnetic and electric power generation systems.

The company has a portfolio of specialised products and integrated system solutions supporting aviation, space systems and satellites, missile defence, power and energy, and processing and monitoring applications for critical defense, industrial, and commercial customers worldwide.

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