DARPA Is Set to Test a Nuclear-Powered Rocket as Soon as 2026

DRACO rocket is being developed for future cislunar operations by DARPA.
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People typically think of space projects as academic ventures exploring new worlds, possible prospecting commercial mining projects of asteroids and maintaining satellite communication networks, and, more recently, space tourism. Interests in space are taking a new development.

Over the next 18 months, General Atomics, headquartered in San Diego, California, will be working on creating the design for a new cutting-edge space rocket propulsion system for DARPA. The intriguing thing is that this will be no typical rocket propulsion system and no average client. Blue Origin (founded by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) and Lockheed Martin will be joining them in this project. Those companies will design their spacecraft concept to work with this rocket propulsion system.

Interestingly, the space rocket propulsion and new spacecraft project these companies are working on aren’t for NASA but for DARPA to carry out classified US military space missions between the Earth and the Moon.

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The first experimental nuclear rocket engine (XE) by NASA

DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA, established in 1958, is a research and development agency responsible for developing emerging technologies for use by the military. 

Anyone could have applied to build nuclear thermal propulsion solution

Even more interesting is that DARPA had initially opened up the application process for potential applications from the public. DARPA had seemingly kept an open mind to what solutions people may have, rather than limiting the process to existing security-cleared contractors. It is perhaps no surprise that DARPA chose General Atomics and Lockheed Martin. These are names typically associated with defense contracts, Blue Origin, on the other hand, to some, may seem a bit of a wildcard.

DARPA has asked General Atomics to make this new propulsion system work with an NTP (Nuclear Thermal Propulsion) reactor. Nuclear Thermal Propulsion has technical advantages compared to Electric propulsion systems. Electrical propulsion systems, including Nuclear Electric Propulsion systems (NEP), are highly efficient but low in thrust-to-weight. On the other hand, chemical propulsion systems have low efficiency but high thrust-to-weight. DARPA wants a very efficient rocket propulsion system capable of high thrust-to-weight to enable time-critical missions over vast distances in cislunar Space. DARPA wants Global Atomics to pioneer creating a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion system.


The race is on for military supremacy in space

Eric Tegler, an editor for Forbes news, wrote a speculative press release stating that maybe this is DARPA’s first step towards a Star Wars-like Starfighter. Maybe Tegler is correct because, in any review of DARPA’s website, they are an organization more aligned with military objectives than academic objectives.

DARPA’s role is to develop revolutionary technologies that give or prevent strategic and tactical surprise advantage to the military. Their work is often focused on developing and demonstrating revolutionary new platforms in Ground Systems, Maritime (Surface and Undersea) Systems, and Air and Space Systems.

Through their DRACO program (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), DARPA hopes that the successful contractor will have the engine built and ready to test in orbit in the Fiscal Year 2026 (FY26). Although this is the target date, the reader should be under no illusion that the race is on between Superpowers for space supremacy.

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The AFRL Cislunar Highway Patrol System by Bryan Ripple, Public Domain

Eric Tegler quotes US Space Command commander Gen. James Dickinson who has testified that China actively seeks “space superiority through space and space attack systems.” 

China has already launched an experimental Shijian-17 satellite, which has a robotic arm that “could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

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Robotic arm grabbing a satellite by NASA

The United States military often claims superiority to maneuver in land, sea, and air; however, no state has proved militarily more capable in Space or can traverse cislunar Space exponentially faster than any rival nation.


Between the Earth and the Moon is an area called cislunar Space. Strategically, the ability to traverse cislunar Space can be a real game-changer in any military offensive. One only has to look at Starlink’s difference to the war in Ukraine to understand that no Army on the ground can quickly attack or defend without having a safe satellite communication network infrastructure in Space. Setting military communication advantages aside, an enemy attack on satellites servicing flight navigation GPS systems and civilian broadband utilities would quickly reign in chaos in any nation.

The successful contractors will likely report to Maj. Nathan Greiner is a program manager at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. Experienced in U.S. Special Operations Command, knowledgeable in hypersonics, research interests include advanced power and propulsion technologies for land, sea, air, and space applications.

Anything is possible

Who would have thought that it was possible for Jeff Bezos, a guy who originally started an online business selling books, that one of his companies is now helping to head USA’s top national security project in Space?