An autonomous spacecraft has just arrived at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, where it will begin its final testing phase. The spacecraft is a reusable space plane designed by Sierra Space, and it is currently known as the Dream Chaser.
Dream Chaser is just one of several commercial cargo resupply spacecrafts that NASA will work with to keep the International Space Station stocked. The spacecraft is designed to launch off of a rocket, but will land on aircraft runways, and it looks very similar to the design used in NASA’s now-retired space shuttle program.
The reusable space plane is designed for a minimum of 15 missions and was adapted from the HL-20, a spacecraft designed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Sierra Space says it is hoping to revolutionize space transportation with the use of the Dream Chaser by offering unique capabilities that others aren’t taking advantage of, like using commercial runways for a controlled return.
Dream Chaser will also utilize a secondary module, which will act as a cargo system for the spacecraft. This module is called Shooting Star, and it is specially designed to “support delivery and disposal of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to and from the space station.” The module is a one-time-use component, though, and will be released from the reusable space plane upon re-entry during each mission.
Obviously, NASA is already utilizing two other options for resupply to the International Space Station, including SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman). When the Dream Chaser reusable space plane passes all of its tests, it will be utilized for similar missions, such as helping deliver supplies and transport trash from the ISS. Some companies are also testing giant space trash bags to help clean up after the astronauts and scientists aboard the ISS.
Sierra Space’s design is exciting, though, and based on the renders shared so far, it should make space supply missions to the ISS even easier. There’s also the possibility that the reusable space plane could be used for other functions, though Sierra Space has not shared any plans to do so.