UN and Sierra Nevada team up to take non-spacefaring nations into orbit

The first ever dedicated United Nations space mission will allow all UN member countries to propose and develop experiments that will orbit Earth for 14 days aboard Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spaceplane(Credit: NASA)

Getting into space is hard – so much so that, nearly 50 years after we put a man on the Moon, there are still only a handful of nations with the funds and technical capabilities to launch rockets into orbit and beyond. In a move that could finally open access to space for developing countries around the world, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) have recently announced plans for the first ever dedicated UN space mission to low-Earth orbit.

All 193 UN member states will be able to propose payloads for the mission, and the countries that are eventually selected will be asked to pay a portion of the mission costs based on both the resources required and – crucially – their own financial ability to contribute. UNOOSA says it will offer technical support where needed, while major sponsors could foot a large portion of the bill.

The mission will consist of a 14-day flight to low-Earth orbit aboard SNC's Dream Chaser. Back in September 2014, Sierra Nevada had lost a crucial NASA contract to SpaceX and Boeing for the job of ferrying astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station. However, the company quickly bounced back and was recently awarded a minimum of six missions under NASA's Commercial Re-supply Services 2 (CRS-2) for delivering cargo to the ISS using the company's spaceplane.

Capable of carrying both pressurized and unpressurized cargo, the Dream Chaser features foldable wings and a "launcher-agnostic" design that Sierra Nevada hopes will be compatible with a number of rocket platforms, including the European Ariane V, the American Atlas 5 and Falcon Heavy, and the Japanese H3 reusable launch system (the latter two being still in development).

The Dream Chaser is also designed with the ability to land at any commercial airport capable of accommodating large commercial aircraft, which would afford yet more flexibility in the mission profile. SNC is reportedly working with airports and spaceports to be granted a reentry license for commercial missions.

According to the schedule, the payloads that will make it into space will be selected in early 2018. Following payload development and integration onto the spaceplane itself, the launch for the two-week mission is expected by 2021.

"One of UNOOSA's core responsibilities is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space," says Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of UNOOSA. "I am proud to say that one of the ways UNOOSA will achieve this, in cooperation with our partner Sierra Nevada Corporation, is by dedicating an entire microgravity mission to United Nations Member States, many of which do not have the infrastructure or financial backing to have a standalone space programme."

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