The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has invited proposals for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme’s II and III phases.

Phase II and III will focus on the development, design, fabrication and assembly of a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine.

The two phases follow Phase I, which included two parallel risk reduction activities, namely Track A and Track B.

Track A aimed to develop the initial design of the rocket engine reactor while Track B focused on the development of a conceptual design for the programme’s in-orbit demonstration system.

The completion of the two phases under the DRACO programme will lead to an in-space flight demonstration of NTR.

Execution of this demonstration is expected to take place in the fiscal year 2026.

DARPA Tactical Technology Office programme manager major Nathan Greiner said: “The United States employs a manoeuvre to maintain advantages in the land, sea, and air domains.

“However, the manoeuvre is more challenging in space due to propulsion system limitation.

“To maintain technological superiority in space, the United States requires leap-ahead propulsion technology that the DRACO programme will provide.”

The DRACO programme will allow the US to perform time-critical missions in the cislunar and improve its interests in space.

DARPA also awarded a contract to General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) to design a nuclear thermal propulsion system under its DRACO programme.