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NASA and DARPA aim to test a nuclear rocket in space by 2027

By Chris Young,

An artist's impression of the experimental nuclear rocket.

NASA is partnering with DARPA in a bid to develop a working nuclear thermal rocket by 2027.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson introduced the new project on Tuesday, January 24, during a presentation at this year's American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech Forum and Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland.

The NASA chief said the space and defense agencies will partner to "develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion, a revolutionary technology that will allow the United States to expand the possibilities for future human spaceflight missions."

NASA and DARPA will develop and demonstrate nuclear rocket propulsion

The new partnership will see NASA join DARPA's Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program, which began in 2021. That program was tasked with developing a nuclear thermal engine for use in an experimental spacecraft called the experimental NTR vehicle (X-NTRV), also designed by DARPA.

Together, NASA and DARPA aim to conduct an in-space demonstration of the resulting nuclear rocket as early as 2027.

Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA, highlighted the two agencies' historic collaboration on spacecraft such as Saturn V for the Apollo missions. "The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and, eventually, people to Mars," she explained.

NASA and DARPA have published an interagency agreement that sets out the key role each agency will play in developing the new spaceflight technology. The agreement grants NASA final authority over the nuclear thermal rocket engine's development. However, DARPA will have final authority on the X-NTRV and will also be responsible for operating the experimental spacecraft and disposing of it in orbit.

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