The space domain is essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national defense. Maintaining space domain awareness in cislunar space – the volume of space between the Earth and the Moon – will require a leap-ahead in propulsion technology.
The goal of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system on orbit. NTP uses a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures before expelling the hot propellant through a nozzle to produce thrust. Compared to conventional space propulsion technologies, NTP offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two-to-five times greater specific impulse (i.e. propellant efficiency) than chemical propulsion.
The DRACO program anticipates two tracks. Track A will include the baseline design of a NTP reactor and culminate in a baseline design review. Track B will include development of an operational system concept to meet operational mission objectives and a demonstration system design that is traceable to the operational system but focuses on demonstrating the propulsion subsystem. Track B is anticipated to culminate in a technology maturation plan review for the demonstration system.
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