NASA chooses Lockheed Martin to develop a nuclear rocket

On Wednesday, NASA and the US military announced that they had selected Lockheed Martin to develop and test a spacecraft with a nuclear jet engine. It will make it possible to reach the Moon and Mars faster and with greater fuel economy.

A nuclear rocket in the artist’s image. Source: DARPA

Nuclear rocket from Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin, one of NASA’s largest partners in the field of space technology, will develop a rocket with a nuclear thermal engine. This was announced on Wednesday, July 26, by representatives of the agency and the US military.

The fact that such a program is being prepared has been mentioned more than once. And it is proposed to combine the lunar nuclear reactor project with it to avoid competition for money. Tests called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) are scheduled to begin in 2027.

The main purpose of creating a nuclear engine is to obtain an increased specific impulse compared to chemical engines. This will significantly increase the speed of the rocket while reducing fuel consumption. NASA experts say that the project is critically important for the exploration of Mars.

How a nuclear thermal engine operates

A nuclear thermal engine is one of several quite different types of propulsion systems that can be used on spacecraft and aircraft. Just like liquid rocket engines, it creates thrust by ejecting superheated gases at high speed.

However, unlike those engines that are being used now, this gas will not be powered by a chemical reaction. Instead, hydrogen cooled to cryogenic temperatures will be pumped through the extremely hot core, where a chain reaction of uranium atoms fission takes place in the rods.

As a result, it will heat up to extremely high temperatures and acquire more energy than in chemical reactions. As a consequence, when it flows through the nozzle into space, it will provide a very high specific impulse. 

The developers do not hide that the probability of a nuclear accident does exist, although in fact the power plant is much safer than the nuclear fuse that NASA developed 60 years ago. However, the activation of the DRACO engine will occur only when the rocket flies away from the Earth.

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