NASA has unveiled its next generation spaceplane, the “Dream Chaser,” its first space reusable space vehicle since the retirement of the beloved fleet of partially reusable Space Shuttles.
So far, it’s only completed its first run of test flights but NASA plans to use this model to ferry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) within the next few years. Its second round of test flights will hit the skies by the end of this year.
Dream Chaser was designed and built by the Sierra Nevada Corporation and it looks as cool as its name suggests. This privately-owned company was one of three companies awarded contracts with NASA to ship cargo to the ISS between 2019 and 2024. It will also be able to dock into the space station with immediate access to passengers or cargo, as shown in the artist's impression below.
It’s relatively small at about 9 meters (30 feet) from nose to tail, about a quarter of the size of the now-retired space shuttles. There are two variants of the space plane. One is a manned version that can transport up to seven crew members. The other will be able to travel unmanned and can transport up to 5,500 kilograms (12,120 pounds) of cargo, exceeding NASA’s current cargo requirements.
Much like NASA's oldest space shuttles, the Dream Chaser launches vertically on a rocket and lands back down to Earth horizontally on a runway like a conventional airplane.
Sierra Nevada Corporation says that this vehicle can be reused 15 times with 90 percent component reusability. As SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 rockets are testament to, the use of reusable technology is dramatically cutting the cost of space travel. In theory, it can also be used for other tasks such as satellite servicing and space junk clean ups.
The last partially reusable spacecraft from NASA was the now-iconic fleet of Space Shuttle. These space shuttles flew at least 135 missions between 1981 and 2011.
“Fly frequently, travel safely, land on (most) runways, and operate economically: such are the guiding principles for 21st-century spaceplanes, cargo-carrying aerospace workhorses routinely launching to low-Earth orbit for space station resupply and crew transfers,” NASA said in its announcement.
“Fans disconsolate after the retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet can take heart: The next generation in reusable space vehicles is set to debut.”