At the end of January 2023 came the announcement that NASA and its longtime partner DARPA were working on Developing a new nuclear powered rocket engine for use in space.
And just as a rocket engine must be able to move things very quickly, the program itself also has an ambitious timeline.
By the end of September 2027, Draco will be ready for testing, including a rocket to take it into space, as well as a spacecraft that will be launched into space using the new engine.
Significantly improve performance
Draco stands for “Demonstration missile for Agile Cislunar operationsAnd it will be a powerful thing. As mentioned, it should not be used in the atmosphere, but instead on ships that will be flown into space. In short, it works by heating the reaction mass — liquid hydrogen in this case — to a high temperature and thus creating a thrust.
Draco should be able to provide a specific impulse two to five times greater than conventional chemical rocket engines. Specific impulse describes how efficiently a rocket engine converts fuel into thrust and is measured in the number of seconds the fuel can be used to generate a given pressure in the engine.
In comparison, a Falcon 9 first stage would last 311 seconds in a vacuum, while a second stage would last 348 seconds, also in a vacuum. The Saturn V first stage managed 421 seconds in vacuum, and the Space Shuttle was capable of 452 seconds.
In other words, the Draco should run somewhere between 900 and 2200 seconds.
This performance increase is dramatic, and although Draco, as the name suggests, is primarily intended to be used between the Earth and the Moon, this technology could provide unimaginable opportunities for other missions as well.
For example, an expedition to Mars.
Using a chemical rocket, that trip would take about seven months each way. Considering that someone turned a door on Mars, that means at least 14 months in space – which is the record for continuous stays in space. With Draco, travel time can be reduced to 100 days each way, maybe more, depending on how efficient it is in reality.
New technology – old concept
Draco has been researching this type of rocket engine for a long time, and in 1955 the first tests were already carried out. More than a dozen different reactors were tested for this, but in 1973 the project was closed in favor of space shuttle research and development.
Draco’s nuclear fuel will be HALEU, that is.”Highly enriched low enriched uranium». In total, this contains 5 to 20 percent U-235, while fuel in a nuclear power plant, by comparison, is 3 to 5 percent U-235.
This is one of the reasons why Draco can only be used outside of our nuclear domain, in the event of leaks or the like.
There is of course the risk of nuclear contamination anyway – for example if a launch vehicle explodes in a nuclear field – but we have been launching and using nuclear fuel in probes and spacecraft for a really long time.
A large number of spacecraft have used so-called RTGs.Electrothermal radioisotope generator», to generate electricity when solar cells are inadequate or impractical, since 1961. Among other things, Voyager 1 and 2And Pioneer 10 And 11And ApolloAnd VikingAnd spiritAnd an opportunityAnd curiousityAnd Cassini-HuygensAnd new Horizons And perseverance To varying degrees RTG units are used as a power source.
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