Space Plane Undergoes Environmental Testing

| Transport

Preparations are being made for the inaugural flight of the space vehicle after its flight reviews and environmental testing at NASA facilities

The first space plane to be capable of using runways for commercial flights has undergone a series of environmental tests at a NASA test facility

Sierra Space completed its build of the first Dream Chaser space plane and begun the next step on the journey of the re-usable spacecraft at the NASA Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, where it has undergone rigorous environmental testing for a number of weeks.

The Dream Chaser takes another step in the exploitation of space as a fully re-usable space-faring craft that can make use of commercial runways. The project was supported by a substantial contract from NASA to resupply the International Space Station and is set to enable more widespread access to space, creating a mechanism by which shared space exploration and international cooperation can be achieved.

The Dream Chaser fleet has been initially designed to facilitate the transportation of cargo and also with the potential to transport crew to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the future. This multi-mission platform provides customisation options to cater for the needs of both domestic and international users, further enhancing its role in global space operations. Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract, Dream Chaser has been selected to provide essential cargo delivery, return and disposal services for the International Space Station.

A new design approach

Sierra Space took a new approach to the design of space vehicles and has addressed the spacecraft’s aesthetics as well as the functional cargo-carrying aspects and its capability of using commercial runways. The company states that it has seamlessly integrated the requirements for achieving space travel as well as hypersonic atmospheric speeds.

The technology deployed in the vehicle enables it to withstand temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees during re-entry as well as being cool to the touch within just minutes of landing. The design incorporated an advanced autonomous flight system, ensuring a minimum 15-mission lifespan.

Advanced safety mechanisms guarantee the integrity of the cargo – including sensitive scientific payloads – and the well-being of all those aboard the International Space Station who will interact with the new vehicle. In addition, powering the Dream Chaser into space is a new propulsion and oxidiser-fuel system, which Sierra Space says is a more eco-friendly and represents a more responsible approach to space travel.

The First of Many

The space plane that has rolled off Sierra Space’s production line is the first of many and has been named “Tenacity”, which will eventually embark upon seven cargo missions to and from the International Space Station, carrying essential supplies such as food, water and scientific experiments. One of Tenacity’s features is its capability to safely return critical cargo to Earth at fewer than 1.5g’s, ensuring the preservation of valuable payloads. Once it returns to earth from each of its missions, it can land at any compatible commercial runway worldwide, just like a narrow body commercial airliner.

This first launch is scheduled to occur from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, from where it will be carried into orbit on the second Vulcan Centaur rocket. Tenacity’s maiden resupply mission will culminate with the vehicle’s return, landing at the historic NASA Space Shuttle Landing Facility.

Test and Review

The first Dream Chaser is now undergoing environmental testing after having completed its Flight Operations Review at the NASA Johnson Space Center, a crucial step in preparation for the inaugural mission to the International Space Station.

This milestone was achieved through a collaboration between the Sierra Space Dream Chaser flight control team and their counterparts at NASA. The week-long review was the culmination of co-operative work between Sierra Space and NASA with over 200 critical elements having been baselined, representing thousands of hours of collective development.

According to Tom Vice, CEO for Sierra Space, precision and practice are paramount in the development of the Dream Chaser spaceplane, particularly in the context of rendezvous and berthing operations at the International Space Station. “Our team is committed to conducting simulation exercises for every facet of the mission, ensuring the highest likelihood of success and safety,” he says.

The space plane has now entered the next phase of its test and development work at the NASA Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio. Here, it has been subjected to rigorous environmental testing including vibration and climatic tests to ensure that it can withstand the high vibration and shock loads of launch as well as the harsh environmental condition of space.

Cargo Module

In parallel to the preparations of “Tenacity” for its inaugural flight, Sierra Space is also testing the “Shooting Star” cargo module, which was designed in tandem with the Dream Chaser to provide the complete system for servicing the needs of the space station with re-usable flight modules.

Now, the testing campaign for the Shooting Star cargo module is underway at the same NASA Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio where Tenacity will also be tested. This pivotal phase of testing aims to validate the spacecraft’s resilience to the demands of launch and the challenging conditions of space as Shooting Star is readied for its inaugural mission to the International Space Station.

Shooting Star operates seamlessly with the Dream Chaser space plane and has an internal cargo capacity of 7,000 pounds, complemented by three external mounting points. It is scheduled to start performing NASA re-supply missions for the International Space Station beginning in 2024 and is compatible with a diverse range of current and future launch vehicles.

The Shooting Star cargo module is slated to transport critical science, food and cargo to the International Space Station under a NASA. Accessible via the aft hatch, crews can seamlessly navigate through the module to the Dream Chaser, creating an efficient process for cargo placement and astronaut operations.

The Shooting Star offers cargo disposal services, ensuring the safe incineration of the module in Earth’s atmosphere post-separation from the Dream Chaser. This practice aligns with Sierra Space Corporation’s commitment to responsible space commercialization.

Following the Shooting Star, the first Dream Chaser spaceplane, Tenacity, has also arrived at the Neil Armstrong Test Facility. The two vehicles will be stacked in launch configuration and undergo rigorous environmental testing starting in the Mechanical Vibration Facility, subjecting them to the extreme conditions of launch vibrations on the world’s most powerful spacecraft shaker table.

NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility is part of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Located on 6,400 acres in Sandusky, Ohio, it is home to some of the world’s largest and most capable space simulation test facilities, where ground tests are conducted for the US and international space and aeronautics communities.

Jonathan Newell
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