The Dream Chaser, a sleek space plane developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), lived up to its name on Saturday by successfully landing at California’s Edwards Air Force Base after a free-flight test.
The uncrewed spacecraft was dropped out of a helicopter flying at an altitude of 12,324 feet over the Mojave Desert. The Dream Chaser descended for 60 seconds, reaching speeds of 330 miles per hour, before touching down on the runway to come to a controlled stop, in contrast to its sketchier 2013 flight test, which ended with it skidding off the tarmac.
Measuring about 30 feet (nine meters) in length, the space plane looks like a miniature version of NASA’s retired Space Shuttles, and follows the same basic spaceflight logic. To get to space, the vehicle will be attached to a heavy-lift rocket and launched vertically, but on its return trip to Earth, it will land horizontally on a runway, ideally intact and ready to be reused on future missions.
The Dream Chaser was selected by NASA for its second Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) program in 2016. These initiatives allow private aerospace companies to compete for NASA contracts for spacecraft that can deliver food, experiments, and other essentials to the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule, which have been ferrying goods to the station for years, have demonstrated the efficacy of this public-private approach.
The Dream Chaser is on track to join these established corporate cargo ships within the next three years, which would make it the first space plane in the CRS fleet. SNC has also resolved to work with the United Nations to provide orbital access to nations that normally are omitted from spaceflight. The company has plans to develop a crewed version of the Dream Chaser in the future, as well.
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