An artist’s rendering of nuclear-powered rocket. Courtesy DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded San Diego-based General Atomics a contract to develop nuclear propulsion for future lunar missions.

The company’s Electromagnetic Systems division will develop a nuclear-thermal propulsion system for rockets operating between earth and the moon by 2025.

The official name of the project is the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO.

The project will use a nuclear reactor to heat propellant to extreme temperatures, producing thrust with an efficiency two-to-five times greater than traditional chemically powered rocket engines.

“Maintaining space domain awareness in cislunar space — the volume of space between the Earth and the Moon — will require a leap-ahead in propulsion technology,” according to DARPA.

The agency has a long history of funding technological breakthroughs, most notably the networking technology that became the Internet.

Scott Forney, president of the General Atomics division, said his company is “excited to support DARPA in defining the next evolution of propulsion technology.”

He noted that General Atomics has extensive expertise in both nuclear reactors and space systems. In the 1960s, the company helped develop a small reactor that was tested in space.

“We know what it takes to design and build safe, mission-specific reactors, as exemplified by our more than 66 TRIGA reactors around the world that are widely regarded as some of the safest reactors ever built,” said Dr. Christina Back, vice president of nuclear technologies and materials.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.