Sierra Nevada conducted a successful glide and landing test flight with its Dream Chaser spaceplane on Saturday, November 11. The unmanned craft is designed to launch atop a rocket and shuttle cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, and then return to land on a runway with experiments and samples from the space station.
The spaceplane was carried to an altitude of 10,000 feet by a Boeing Vertol 234-UT heavy-lift helicopter, the civilian version of the Army’s CH-47 Chinook, and then dropped to glide to the ground and land on a runway at Edwards Air Force Base. The Dream Chaser used an onboard autonomous guidance computer to line up with the runway and land, deploying two main landing gear wheels and a front nose skid.
The Dream Chaser suffered a setback in 2013 when the craft’s landing gear did not completely deploy during a landing test and it skidded to a stop on the runway. Sierra Nevada initially designed the Dream Chaser to carry astronauts, but the company has since reworked the design to be an autonomous cargo spaceplane. NASA has awarded the company a Commercial Resupply Services contract to provide ISS resupply flights from 2019 to 2024.
Saturday’s test flight is the first of several glide and landing tests Sierra Nevada is planning with the Dream Chaser test vehicle from higher and higher altitudes. Future orbital vehicles will launch on Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance, and Lockheed Martin has partnered with Sierra Nevada to develop the composite structural shell of the orbital-class vehicles.
Sierra Nevada did not announce the flight test flight prior to carrying it out this past weekend, although the test was expected after a captive carry test in August. The company is hoping to launch a Dream Chaser in an orbital test for the first time around 2020.
Although Sierra Nevada did not receive a contract from NASA to develop a crew vehicle, the company is doing research and design work to eventually build a crewed version of the Dream Chaser following cargo flights. SpaceX and Boeing were selected in 2014 to develop crewed space capsules for NASA astronauts to fly on, and Sierra Nevada hopes eventually their Dream Chaser could be used for similar missions. The Nevada-based spaceflight company has even suggested using the craft to carry astronauts for a repair and refurbishing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to keep the space telescope operational through the 2020s.
The next step for Sierra Nevada is to carry its spaceplane up to higher altitudes to simulate a reentry flight that would follow an orbital mission. Then, if all goes according to plan, we could see the Dream Chaser launch on top of an Atlas V rocket in the next few years.