Rapid advances in technology mean we are seeing the lines between science fiction and reality blur more and more each day. A newly-commissioned project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) blurs those lines even further. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, could be pulled right out of Star Wars. Last week, DARPA announced they have “picked three firms to design a spacecraft demonstrator with a nuclear thermal propulsion system that will enable ‘rapid manoeuvre’ by an orbital spacecraft,” according to Defence News.
The DRACO project, in short, is about commissioning a nuclear powered spacecraft that can rapidly manoeuvre in the same way a fighter jet can in Earth’s atmosphere. This explains why comparisons to Star Wars style X-wing fighters are floating around the project. While the finished project probably won’t be quite as comparable to Star Wars-type space ships, development of this type of technology could progress rapidly.
In this regard, Forbes Magazine recently made a good comparison to the development of military planes in World War one. They explained that In 1914, “military aircraft were minimally controllable observation platforms – like modern satellites – but by the end of World War I four years later, they were highly manoeuvrable offensive and defensive weapons.” If progress could be made that fast then, what about now?
The core component of DRACO is the engine. It is a nuclear thermal propulsion system (NTP). NTP systems theoretically could replace traditional chemical and fuel-based thrust systems that that currently power rockets. An NTP system would not require re-fueling, and would have a very long life span. Current propulsion systems have bad gas mileage and aren’t capable of rapid manoeuvring like an NTP system would theoretically be.
Over the past decade the world has seen the development of many futuristic space technologies. SpaceX’s achievements with reusable technology are arguably the most visible of these projects, although all world powers have also been pushing for advantage in space through technology. The United States has projects such as the X-37B low orbit UAV: this is a reusable robotic aircraft that is run by a branch of the U.S. Air Force, which recently landed after spending over two years in space.
China is also a key player in space, having launched a prototype attempt at a space station called Tiangong-1, which was active from September 2011 to April 2018. China is now aiming to place its second space station in orbit this year. China has also recently been accused of developing attack satellites such as the Shijan-17: this model reportedly has a robotic arm that could be used to disable other satellites. This kind of aggressive mindset in the development of space tech is dangerous and has many ramifications.
Even though the NTP system being developed by DARPA could have great positive implications for space exploration, the reality is probably more sinister. DARPA specifically looks at the defence and military tech potential of these technologies, and it is likely that the first time these systems would be deployed would be in a military context. This technology could rapidly destabilise the balance of power in space and lead to more open and direct conflict between world powers. Nations of the world should watch these technological developments closely and hold states to account wherever aggressive behaviour in space threatens world peace.