Space Nuclear Reactor: General Atomics wins DARPA contract to design NTP system


GA-EMS DARPA Contract: US defence and atomic technology giant General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) Friday said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a contract to the company to support the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.

GA-EMS will lead the design of a novel Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system that will allow a rocket to operate in cislunar space, the region outside of Earth’s atmosphere to just past the moon’s orbit.

“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,” Scott Forney, president of GA-EMS said in a statement sent to Defence Star.

Forney said the GA-EMS was uniquely positioned to support this effort because the company has capabilities and heritage in both nuclear reactor systems and space systems, the combination of which is required to execute the DRACO mission.

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The goal of the DRACO program is to demonstrate an Nuclear Thermal Propulsion System in orbit by 2025.

SNAP-10 space nuclear reactor (artistic impression).

SNAP-10 space nuclear reactor (artistic impression).

To date, the SNAP-10A reactor has been the only U.S. nuclear power reactor launched into space, for which General Atomics was directly involved in nuclear fuel testing and characterization, said the US defence group.

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As per the contract, the GA-EMS will deliver a preliminary design of the NTP system over the next 18 months to demonstrate and ensure that the system is operationally effective and able to be built and validated in low-earth orbit within the next five years.

“We know what it takes to design and build safe, mission-specific reactors, as exemplified by our more than 66 TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactors around the world that are widely regarded as some of the safest reactors ever built,” said Dr. Christina Back, vice president of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at GA-EMS.

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Christina Back said the company’s expertise in state-of-the-art nuclear fuels and advanced materials were the 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,” she added.

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