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Nasa to launch nuclear-powered spacecraft by 2027

Nasa and US military are collaborating on a new mission that could make crewed missions to Mars shorter and faster

Artist concept of Draco spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine.
Artist concept of Draco spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. (Darpa)

By 2027, Nasa is planning to launch a nuclear-powered spacecraft into space. The space agency is collaborating with the United States military, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, for the launch.

The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (Draco) program will test a nuclear-powered rocket in space to “advance the development of nuclear thermal rocket technology, supporting both agencies' goals,” according to Nasa’s website. For Nasa, nuclear propulsion is a key breakthrough to master for its missions to Mars.

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A nuclear-powered rocket would enable Nasa to decrease the transit time to Mars while reducing the mission’s complexity and risks for the crew. This rocket can be more than twice as efficient compared to conventional ones as they require significantly less propellant and can carry more equipment, according to Nasa’s website. Reducing journey time is important for a crewed mission to Mars as it avoids excessive radiation exposure.

The nuclear-powered propellant pumps a liquid propellant, in Draco's case cryogenic hydrogen, through a reactor core, where uranium atoms split apart through fission. This massively heats the propellant, turning it into a gas and funnelling it through a nozzle to produce thrust, according to AFP. Notably, the reactor will not be turned on until Nasa’s spacecraft has reached a high orbit.

"These more powerful and efficient nuclear thermal propulsion systems can provide faster transit times between destinations," Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space told the news agency. Shireman also said that the technology could "revolutionise" future missions to the Moon, where Nasa plans on building long-term habitats.

The Draco program was started by the Darpa in 2021, and collaboration with Nasa began in early 2023, according to On Wednesday, Nasa and the US military announced that defense contractor Lockheed Martin will develop the nuclear-powered rocket, as reported by AFP.

BWX Technologies, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, will take care of the design and build of the nuclear fission reactor that will power the engine. Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is responsible for the execution of the nuclear-powered Draco engine, according to Nasa’s website.

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