Mini Space Shuttle Successfully Completes First Test Flight In Four Years

The Dream Chaser passed its test with flying colors. NASA/Carla Thomas

An unmanned space plane has completed a test in the US, ahead of planned flights into space in the coming years.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser had a successful “free flight” test on Saturday, November 11. This involved it being dropped from a helicopter and then gliding to the ground.

The test took place at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. The goal was to test out how the vehicle performed in its final approach to the runway. A previous test in 2013 resulted in partial failure when the landing gear didn’t work properly.

This time around, everything appears to have gone smoothly. SNC hasn’t released technical details about the flight yet but it is expected to do so later today.

In a post on Twitter, the company said the plane had a “beautiful flight and landing”. This was the first time the Dream Chaser had flown in four years, since that accident in 2013.

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SNC has a contract with NASA to use the Dream Chaser space plane to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). From 2020 or 2021, it’s hoped the vehicle will begin taking cargo up there.

Originally the vehicle was designed to take humans into orbit, but that plan was shelved when NASA did not pick SNC for their Commercial Crew Program, opting for SpaceX and Boeing instead. Dream Chaser may still launch humans in the future, but for now it is focusing on cargo under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 program.

The vehicle is reminiscent of the Space Shuttle, although at 9 meters (30 feet) long it is about four times smaller. In a fun twist of fate, Dream Chaser landed on the same runway on this test that the Space Shuttles once did.

For this test it’s believed the Dream Chaser was dropped from a height of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet). When it eventually launches, it will do so atop an Atlas V rocket, returning to Earth from orbit by itself. This capability will allow it to return cargo and equipment from space.

Aside from conducting launches for NASA, SNC is also in discussion with officials in Europe to use Dream Chaser to launch European payloads.

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