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Dream Chaser space plane to fall from the skies next summer

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October 13, 2011

The Dream Chaser carried into space on the nose of a rocket. (Photo: SNC)

The Dream Chaser carried into space on the nose of a rocket. (Photo: SNC)

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The Dream Chaser, a reusable space plane currently under development by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), is to undergo high altitude drop tests in 2012 following a 25.6 million US dollar boost from NASA to top-off the 80 million US dollar contract awarded earlier this year. But it won't be chasing just any dream. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program this year, the very tangible goal is to deliver a low-cost, safe alternative for transporting astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations.

The vertical-takeoff, horizontal landing (VTHL) space plane is designed to carry up to seven humans, but can fly autonomously if necessary. While the ability to carry people will reduce the United States' dependency on US$50 million per person flights to the International Space Station aboard Russia's Soyuz craft, it may be the space craft's ability to carry cargo that is of particular interest to NASA. As Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems, pointed out in this BBC interview: "At the moment, there is no logical way to take things home from the space station. We can take three people home on a Soyuz but all the science work that's being done up there doesn't have a way to come back. Our vehicle has a particular use for that."

While a capsule landing subjects the cargo to severe G-forces, the Dream Chaser returns from space by gliding, experiences less than 1.5 g on re-entry and is capable of landing on almost any runway. Sirangelo also highlighted the fact that, unlike the Space Shuttle, the vehicle carries no hazardous materials and so can be approached immediately after landing.

The design is based on NASA's HL-20 Space Taxi concept developed by the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1980s and 1990s. The inspiration for HL-20 had in turn been drawn from photos of a mysterious spacecraft being recovered by a Soviet ship from the Indian Ocean in 1982 (the spacecraft was later identified as the Soviet BOR-4 and reverse-engineered up to a wind tunnel test stage). The most conspicuous aspect of this heritage is the lifting-body design, which can be thought of as the opposite of a flying wing design. While the latter does away with the fuselage in order to eliminate non-lifting surfaces, the former depreciates the importance of wings and uses the fuselage for lift generation in order to reduce drag on atmospheric re-entry.

The Dream Chaser is designed to be launched into space on the nose of a rocket. However, for the unmanned atmospheric drop-tests it is going to be carried into the skies by Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, originally built to launch SpaceShipTwo spacecraft.

Dream Chaser docking the ISS (Photo: SNC)

So far the Dream Chaser project has been on schedule and all milestones have been completed. This includes testing the frame by mounting it on an earthquake simulator, as well as testing the hybrid rocket motors running on a peculiar combination of nitrous oxide and recycled rubber. If everything keeps going according to plan, the Dream Chaser will be sent to orbit in 2014, sitting on top of a powerful Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance (see main image). After detachment from the rocket, the space plane will use the hybrid motors to adjust its orbit or dock to the ISS.

That said, the International Space Station is not the only destination SNC has in mind. The company has already invested tens of millions of US dollars on top of what it received from NASA, so it is only natural that it is also eyeing other potential income sources like space tourism. This is where a partnership with Virgin Galactic kicks in. Richard Branson's company is going to be responsible for marketing SNC's space tourism efforts, while SNC concentrates on designing hybrid motors for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.

Is space tourism going to guarantee a return on investment? Although the Dream Chaser is almost fully reusable, Mark Sirangelo estimates that in order to make a profit the company would have to be operating multiple Dream Chasers 50-100 times each. This is uncharted business territory.

This video shows an animation of how Dream Chaser would operate.

Source: SNC

About the Author
Jan Belezina Formerly in charge of Engadget Poland, Jan Belezina's long time fascination with the advance of new technology has led him to become Gizmag's eyes and ears in Eastern Europe.   All articles by Jan Belezina
9 Comments

30 years late, unfortunately. Just think if this was sitting on top of Apollo.

The biological weapon program is very valuable.

Stewart Mitchell
13th October, 2011 @ 08:07 am PDT

Actually, 40-50 years late. In the 1960s the military space program had completed a lot of research using the X-15. They had plans to follow that up with the X-20 Dyna Soar space plane. The X-20 would have launched into space on a rocket with up to four crew and/or cargo in a payload bay and returned from orbit by gliding to a landing like an airplane. The military space program died due to NASA taking over all manned space flight and loss of funds to fight the Vietnam war. It is one of the great "what ifs?" of history. If the Vietnam war had not occured, the X-20 would have evolved to something like the Dream Chaser. It is just a matter of technology and will. The Space Shuttle was a great machine but didn't do anything that the X-20 and follow-ons couldn't do except for having a larger payload bay.

I wish them luck with the Dream Chaser. Maybe with it and other private space ventures, we will finally get to the place we should have already been about 10-20 years ago.

History Nut
13th October, 2011 @ 11:08 am PDT

Still taking the brute force approach to reaching space. Very few systems take the economical route, ASAT and the Scaled Composites space planes are the first that come to mind that use an economical way to get to the edge of space.

Chris Hann
13th October, 2011 @ 12:25 pm PDT

Whats with the naked pilots in the top picture? What it's Really that fun to fly into space?

Robert DuBois
13th October, 2011 @ 03:09 pm PDT

Brute force for sure. Would love for someone to explain to me why we can't fly a rocket up as high as we can, and use a rocket to get into space from there.

Still hope this project does well. Really, really sad to see the space shuttle retire, and the US dropping back to old tech to replace it. It is not like they didn't know it was coming.

sunfly
13th October, 2011 @ 03:25 pm PDT

Chris.....I doubt the Scaled Composite craft can reach the ISS. That's kind of the point. Sub-orbital flights are cool, but if something needs to get higher, you need more force.

VoiceofReason
13th October, 2011 @ 03:39 pm PDT

It is interesting that Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is moving quite quickly on the development of their own craft and engine while lagging behind on the motor for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. They are holding up the first powered flight for Virgin while winning money from NASA to spend on their own project which is going very well.

Having multiple ways to get people and cargo to and from space is a good thing. The price per person might be much cheaper than the space shuttle if they use a Falcon 9 rocket to boost the Dream Chaser. There could even be a market for a slightly larger version to fit bulky items in that cannot be carried in a capsule.

Oztechi
13th October, 2011 @ 10:40 pm PDT

Even under the best scenario brute force is required to reach orbit. Earth's escape velocity is approximately 25300 mph or 11.2 k/sec. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever reached orbit except via the ballistic trajectory that rockets use. The space plane or horizontal to orbit craft is a good trick because of the need to transition from atmospheric flight to flight in vacuum. It's not impossible by any means but it is difficult. The problem with Scaled Composite's Space Ship One and the Virgin Galactic craft is no dwell time. They can reach space but, immediately fall back to earth.

It's going to happen, just not too soon.

David G. Cole
14th October, 2011 @ 12:39 am PDT

re; History Nut

The space shuttle was overly complex, and structurally deficient piece of junk. Which is why it cost so much to fly. Granted Challenger blew up because a bureaucrat overruled thew engineers, but Columbia burned because of bad design.

Slowburn
14th October, 2011 @ 06:28 pm PDT
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