By 2025 a technological demonstrator called DRACE could appear in Earth’s orbit. It should test out nuclear thermal propulsion. If it succeeds it could become the key advantage for military operations between the Earth and the Moon.
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Imagine that an enemy satellite is readying up to attack a United States Satellite. Let’s say it is equipped with a robotic arm so it can defuse its key military and communication technologies. The US Space Force detected the quickly approaching attack and right before the enemy satellite arrives it will start its nuclear thermal propulsion that will quickly get it to the safety of higher orbit and once the danger has passed it will return it to its original orbit.
This scenario could become reality more quickly than you’d assume. The American agency DARPA in cooperation with the companies General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin are preparing the spaceship DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) that should be the first to have precisely the nuclear thermal propulsion. The goal for the future is to provide us with quick and effective transportation between the Earth and the Moon.
Nuclear thermal propulsion works by having its liquid fuel (hydrogen) pass alongside a small nuclear reactor onboard the spaceship. The reactor has a fission reaction happening in it, making heat that transforms the liquid into gas. The gas leaves the nozzle of the ship and creates thrust. American experts believe the nuclear thermal propulsion will be roughly two times as effective than traditional chemical propulsion.
As major Nathan Greiner – the program’s manager – says: nuclear thermal propulsion should be applicable to various missions in space, mostly between the Earth and the Moon. Its parameters promise a lot of maneuverability making it perfect for military missions.
Mind you, DRACO isn’t the first nuclear thermal propulsion that was ever developed by the United States. But it never worked out. For example, in 1961, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) included propulsion very similar to the DRACO propulsion. NASA thought that this engine will be included in the final stage while the previous stages will include chemical propulsion. Sadly, this project was ended in 1973 because of the lack of funding. In the seventies, there was the ORION project that wanted to use a series of small nuclear bomb detonations. This program was dealt a fatal blow in 1963 by the ban of nuclear explosions in space.
DARPA wants to have the technological demonstrator in orbit in 2025. And if it becomes a priority for the Pentagon there is a chance that it could be used in important satellites in the early thirties.
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