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DARPA and NASA Aim to Test Nuclear Rocket by 2026 

Aug. 08, 2023.
2 min. read 13 Interactions

The legendary Project Orion may finally go live – as a lunar rocket and interplanetary vehicle

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Amara Angelica

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Amara Angelica is Senior Editor, Mindplex

Illustration of the DRACO spacecraft being developed by Lockheed Martin for DARPA, showing the thermal nuclear engine technology that will provide thrust (credit: Lockheed Martin)

The engine would drastically shorten trips to the Moon and Mars

“If you want to fly to Mars, you have to pick your departure date carefully … the ideal launch windows only come around every 26 months, and the planets need to be in alignment,” notes IEEE Spectrum.     

The problem: chemical rockets are “limited by the fuel and oxygen they can carry.” Instead, you could use nuclear power, which “NASA and DARPA want to build, first as a prototype, then as a moon rocket, and finally as an interplanetary vehicle.”

“The old program put weapons-grade uranium-235 in the reactor, which is also off the agenda now. Instead, the design specifies much less enriched U-235. ‘It is safe to work around; it is safe to be around; it doesn’t need the protection measures that need to be a place for plutonium,’ says Anthony Calomino, a materials and structural scientist at NASA.”

Project DRACO

On July 26, the agencies disclosed details of a project to do just that, nicknamed DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations).

The plan: test the prototype in space, beginning in late 2026. If it works out, “the next step will be to build a lunar rocket … but the real payoff could come when the order is given to go to Mars.” (Note: “military dividends may flow.”)

Project Orion

The nuclear pulse propulsion concept is based on an idea from physicist/science-fiction writer Stanislaw Ulam, according to Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957 to 1965, a book by George Dyson, the son of Freeman Dyson, one of the leaders of the project. 

TED Feb 19, 2008. George Dyson tells the amazing story of Project Orion, a massive, nuclear-powered spacecraft that could have taken us to Saturn in five years. With a priceless insider’s perspective and a cache of documents, photos and film, Dyson brings this dusty Atomic Age dream to vivid life.

An animation of today’s rocket, produced by Lockheed Martin, can be seen here. More at National Defense.

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One thought on “DARPA and NASA Aim to Test Nuclear Rocket by 2026 

  1. We do need some reliable and economical way to get off this planet and move around the solar system.






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