The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has contracted General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) to design a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system.

The NTP is part of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme.

The company will lead the design of the system, which will be demonstrated on-orbit to allow a rocket to operate in ‘cislunar space’ by 2025.

GA-EMS president Scott Forney said: “We are excited to support DARPA in defining the next evolution of propulsion technology, critical to maintaining space domain awareness in the cislunar region and beyond.

“GA-EMS is uniquely positioned to support this effort because we have capabilities and heritage in both nuclear reactor systems and space systems, the combination of which is required to execute the DRACO mission.”

For the next 18 months, GA-EMS will be engaged in delivering a preliminary design of the NTP system ‘to demonstrate and ensure’ the system is operationally efficient.

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So far, the ‘SNAP-10A reactor’ has been the only American-built nuclear power reactor launched into space.

The company was directly engaged in nuclear fuel testing and characterisation for the SNAP-10A reactor.

GA-EMS Nuclear Technologies and Materials vice-president Christina Back said: “We know what it takes to design and build safe, mission-specific reactors, as exemplified by our more than 66 Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) reactors around the world that are widely regarded as some of the safest reactors ever built.

“GA-EMS’ expertise in state-of-the-art nuclear fuels and advanced materials are key components to the NTP design to create a highly efficient and exceptionally safe propulsion system.

“Combined with our in-house capabilities to fabricate these components and others, we can ensure delivery of a superior NTP reactor on orbit and on time.”

In January 2019, GA-EMS secured a hosted payload solutions (HoPS) mission delivery order for the Argos advanced data collection system (A-DCS) from the US Air Force (USAF) Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).