Hardcore science fiction junkies might be disappointed by 2017 — we don’t have flying cars or a base on the moon yet. We don’t even have hoverboards, much to the disappointment of Back to the Future fans. Thankfully, we are getting a little bit closer to becoming a space-faring species with the latest successful test of the Dream Chaser space plane. What was Sierra Nevada Corp. hoping to accomplish with this test, and what does it mean for the future of commercial space flight?
Introducing Dream Chaser
The Dream Chaser space plane looks remarkably like the space shuttles of yesteryear, with a few changes to the exterior design. The goal of this spacecraft is twofold — first, it can be used as an unmanned cargo craft, similar to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that is resupplying the International Space Station. Second, a human pilot guides the plane, which can carry up to seven crew members to low-Earth-orbit positions.
It is designed in such a way that it can actually be landed at any runway that can accommodate large aircraft, as long as it is at least 10,000 feet long. It also uses a “soft” lower-G reentry that isn’t as hard on crew members.
This space plane has been in development for more than a decade, taking advantage of 40-plus years of research by NASA and other aeronautic companies. Dream Chaser may be standing on the shoulders of giants, but she’s nearly ready to take her first steps.
Captive carry test success
In 2013, Dream Chaser took to the skies for the first time in what is known as a captive-carry test — basically, the plane was tethered to a helicopter and then released. For the test to be a success, the DC had to glide autonomously down and land safely on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base.
The 2013 test didn’t end well — the landing gear didn’t engage correctly, so the plane skidded off the runway and crashed.
They didn’t make it into the air again until this year, but it seems like 2017 is definitely Dream Chaser’s year. The most recent test went off without a hitch, and Dream Chaser was able to fly and land safely on the same runway it had skidded off four years before.
Now it’s down to NASA — they have to accept the results of the flight test, but if NASA is happy with the results, it will mark the final milestone to complete their 2012 contract with the space giant.
Dream Chaser’s future
Dream Chaser is making her first steps into becoming a real contender in the world of commercial space flight. Right now, Sierra Nevada Corp. has three different contracts concerning the space plane, though that may drop to two soon if NASA deems the original 2012 contract was fulfilled.
SNC has a second contract with NASA to develop the plane as an unmanned delivery system for the International Space Station. If they’re able to stick to their timeline, they could be competing with SpaceX for ISS delivery contracts as soon as 2020.
The company has also organized an agreement with the United Nations to carry international supplies and payloads into space. There aren’t a lot of details available on this agreement right now, though, so we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.
Right now, both the manned and unmanned versions of the Dream Chaser need the help of an Atlas V or Ariane V rocket to get them into a low-Earth orbit, but once they’re there, they can navigate and return to Earth on nearly any suitable runway on the planet.
There is no news on whether or not Dream Chaser’s services will be available for passenger flights, but it certainly seems SpaceX won’t be the only name in commercial space delivery for long. We can’t wait to see what Dream Chaser does next!
This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her page Schooled by Science.