An artist's rendering of a DRACO spacecraft.
The Pentagon's research and development arm on Monday awarded a trio of companies with contracts to build and demonstrate a nuclear-based propulsion system on a spacecraft in orbit by 2025.
General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Jeff Bezos' space venture Blue Origin won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA awards, under the agency's Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program or DRACO.
The goal of the program is deceptively simple: Use a nuclear thermal propulsion system to power a spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit.
The Pentagon's research and development agency says a nuclear powered spacecraft has the potential to achieve both the high power of an chemical-based propulsion system and the high efficiency of an electrical-powered system.
“This combination would give a DRACO spacecraft greater agility to implement the Department of Defense's core tenet of rapid maneuver in cislunar space (between the Earth and moon),” the agency said.
The contracts awarded to the companies are for the first 18-month phase of the program, with two tracks.
In Track A, General Atomics will tackle the preliminary design of a nuclear thermal reactor and the concept for a propulsion subsystem, with its contract worth $22.2 million.
In Track B, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin–awarded $2.5 million and $2.9 million, respectively–will each develop spacecraft concept designs.
“Nuclear thermal propulsion is a transformative technology that will dramatically change the way spacecraft will operate, increasing agility and allowing more efficient travel to Mars and beyond in far less time than conventional propulsion systems,” Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin Space's manager of Human Exploration Advanced Programs, said in a statement to CNBC. “A lot of work was done on nuclear propulsion in previous decades and we'll leverage that expertise as we combine it with modern digital engineering modern spacecraft design and creativity to advance this new capability.”
While the defense giant is often focused on this type of Pentagon work, this award represents a new national security contract for Bezos' company–which is focused on a variety of space projects, including its tourism rocket New Shepard, a giant reusable rocket called New Glenn, and an astronaut lunar lander for NASA.
“Blue Origin is excited to support DARPA in maturing spacecraft concepts for this important technology area,” Brent Sherwood, the company's senior vice president of advanced development programs, said in a statement to CNBC.
DARPA expects the first phase of DRACO work to be done by late 2022, with following phases to be up for grabs.
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