The US government is developing a nuclear rocket to send satellites into the vast space between the Earth and the Moon, in a renewed space race with China.
The rocket will have a nuclear thermal propulsion engine and is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the government.
The engine uses a small nuclear reactor to generate heat from uranium that is then transferred to a liquid propellant which expands into a gas and generates thrust after being shot through a nozzle at the back of the craft.
DARPA says the nuclear rocket will not be for getting to space but will be used to move and position satellites between the Earth and the Moon.
According to a report by the Daily Beast the goal is to have an operating spaceship in ‘cislunar’ space before China gets there with its own craft.
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NASA is working on a similar type of Nuclear Propulsion Engine that could be used to get humans to Mars in about 100 days
DARPA has allocated $158 million (£122 million) for space technology research in 2021 – including the nuclear engine and robots to service satellites.
WHAT IS NUCLEAR THERMAL PROPULSION AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) systems have been around since the 1950s but are only now starting to come into their own.
They allow for more efficient, lower weight and faster manoeuvring of satellites or spaceships.
The system involves placing a small nuclear reactor on the spacecraft to generate heat from uranium fuel.
The thermal energy produced is then transferred to a liquid propellant such as liquid hydrogen.
That then expands into a gas and is shot out through a nozzle at the back of the craft to produce thrust.
That thrust gets the exhaust moving very fast and moves the spacecraft forward.
It would replace a similar thrust process in existing satellites and ships derived from chemical engines – but is able to go further, faster and with less fuel on board.
The development of the nuclear rocket comes from ab allocated $21 million (£16million) to build the first components.
A spokesperson for DARPA said the rocket will ‘enhance domestic operations to a new high-ground, which is in danger of being defined by the adversary.’
They say the nuclear engine will allow them to move satellites further, faster and with less fuel than conventional chemical engines currently on board the spaceships.
This is the second year the agency has allocated funds to the nuclear engine program – in the 2020 budget they allocated $10 million for an early study.
The engine has been called the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) and the 2021 funds allow for the first components to be developed.
DRACO will be developed and a test version built by DARPA before it is handed over to the US Air Force, who will operate it in space.
A number of space agencies including in the US, China and Europe – as well as private companies – have been working on operations aimed at mining the Moon.
This will allow them to extract minerals that could be used to support longer missions including those to Mars and beyond.
‘An agile nuclear thermal propulsion vehicle enables the [Defense Department] to maintain space domain awareness of the burgeoning activity within this vast volume,’ Jared Adams, a DARPA spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.
DRACO is almost identical to a NASA program that has been in development for the past few years aimed at making trips to Mars quicker and cheaper.
Copernicus, the theoretical NASA spacecraft would speed up travel time between Earth and Mars and be lighter due to having to carry less fuel.
The type of rocket being developed by NASA and DARPA is described as a ‘high-assay low-enriched uranium nuclear-thermal propulsion system.’