Space

Gryphon Technologies to support development of nuclear rocket engine for DARPA

Gryphon Technologies to suppor...
Artist's concept of a spacecraft with nuclear thermal propulsion
Artist's concept of a spacecraft with nuclear thermal propulsion
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Artist's concept of a spacecraft with nuclear thermal propulsion
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Artist's concept of a spacecraft with nuclear thermal propulsion

DARPA has awarded a US$14-million contract to the Gryphon Technologies engineering firm to support the development and demonstration of a nuclear rocket engine for the agency's Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. The High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system will allow the US military to carry out missions in cislunar space.

The single greatest limitation in space travel is the propulsion system. On Earth, it's possible to create motors that have a very high payload ratio, so one can, in the words of an early aviator, make a tea tray fly by putting enough power behind it. However, getting into space requires such high velocities and such high energies that engineers are forced to use very large engines and huge amounts of fuel to put very small payloads into orbit.

Once in space, there are essentially two options. One is to use chemical rockets, but these have largely reached their theoretical limits when it comes to thrust, or eclectic propulsion systems that produce very small thrust for very long periods of time.

As far back as 1945, it was recognized that there was a third option, which is to harness the power of the atom to produce a rocket that is more powerful than its chemical counterparts. The problem has been to create a practical design that produces enough thrust to warrant the investment.

For the DRACO program, DARPA is looking at Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) to power spacecraft beyond the Earth's atmosphere out to just beyond the orbit of the Moon. The idea is that a nuclear reactor would heat a propellant, such as hydrogen, to extreme temperatures, resulting in thrust that would be 10,000 times that of an electric engine and up to five times the efficiency of a chemical rocket.

According to DARPA, DRACO is being moved forward on two tracks. Track A is to develop the reactor design and track B is to produce an operational system. For the present contract, Gryphon will look at developing a HALEU propulsion system that uses nuclear fuel made from recycled civilian reactor fuel that has been reprocessed and enriched to between five and 20 percent – greater than that of civilian reactors and less than that of naval reactors.

The result will be a reactor core that will be small, produces less waste, have a longer core life and greater efficiency, making it more suitable for use in space than previous designs.

"A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap-ahead in space propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches," says Dr. Tabitha Dodson, Gryphon’s Chief Engineer on the support team and a national expert in NTP systems.

Source: Gryphon Technologies

8 comments
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Elon Musk should wait for this for his Mars project. A chemical rocket makes no sense for mass transportation i space.
Gabor Pauler
$14million for nuclear engine research is an elegant way of laundering taxpayer money for some totally different purpose. $14billion would be more realistic.
1stClassOPP
Now you’re talking! Go nuclear on lots of things
Phillip Jenkins
Nuclear propulsion is a great idea except for the huge downside of how do you get nuclear material into space safely. Rockets still fail regularly and who wants radiation spread far and wide .
toni24
I wonder if the design will use the old NERVA, Dumbo, Orion or Medusa system
foxpup
Someone needs to find a cubic km of platinum out in an asteroid somewhere to fund all this cools stuff we want to build. :-) Lots of people want to become miner 2049ers (better yet earlier)
SibylTheHeretic
Its about time. But why put solar on a nuclear rocket? Either generate electrical power from the primary reactor or ad a second smaller reactor like Kilopower. Solar isn't necessarily lighter when you add the weight of the batteries. The space station has 24 batteries at 430lbs each, about 10,000lbs. One 10,000 watt Kilopower reactor is 3300lbs.
Mark Centennial
Here is how to do it:
Use the Space Shuttle to send 6 NTP Systems into Orbit and attach them to a preconstructed Holding Assembly.
Modify the Space Shuttle to be capable of taking 4 NTP Systems as attachments.
One NTP System will be the Primary source of thrust energy to determine the limits of one NTP System
One NTP System would be kept idle and used as to return the augments Space Shuttle to the Originating Holding Assembly.
One NTP System would be a Backup for the returning augmented Space Shuttle.
The last remaining NTP System would be an Emergency Backup for the entire circuit of travel.
The spent NTP Systems on the Holding Assembly, at the point of above-Earth-Orbit, would be refueled from Earth by taking Spent Nuclear Waste to the Holding Assembly via other Space Shuttles.
The further you wanted to to travel and return would be increased by building additional NTP Holding Assemblies further from Earth.
other than that, someone would have to come up with a reason to do all this work. Whadaya Think?