After years of development and numerous iterations, the latest Dream Chaser spaceplane has successfully completed its first captive carry flight test over the Mojave Desert. Hoisted up by a Chinook helicopter, the Dream Chaser will undertake one more captive carry test flight in the near future before embarking upon its first free flight later in the year.
In early 2016, NASA awarded three private companies contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) over the coming years. Alongside Orbital ATK's Cygnus and SpaceX's Dragon, the Dream Chaser signed up to execute a minimum of six missions to the ISS between 2019 and 2024. As well as delivering supplies, the missions need to be able to return cargo safely back to Earth.
The Dream Chaser project stands apart from the other two, capsule-based programs in that it is the only craft of the three capable of a runway landing and its particular design gives it the ability to land on any large-scale commercial airport runway in the world. This feature has proved of great interest to other space organizations around the globe, with the UN also showing interest in the Dream Chaser project.
It has been a rocky road to this day for the Dream Chaser project after initially losing a NASA contract aimed at ferrying crew from Earth to the ISS. The Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) subsequently redesigned the craft, creating a new unmanned version tailored to the transportation of cargo.
This current Dream Chaser design is capable of carrying both pressurized and unpressurized cargo, it features foldable wings, and is "launcher-agnostic," meaning it will be compatible with a variety of rocket platforms. SNC also suggests the Dream Chaser is easily modified into a manned variant that could support future crew transportation missions.
The latest captive carry test that saw the craft lifted to an altitude at which it would be released before a free flight test and allowed the engineers to monitor a variety of factors in a flight environment and obtain data to evaluate several of its systems.
"We are very pleased with results from the Captive Carry test, and everything we have seen points to a successful test with useful data for the next round of testing," says Lee "Bru" Archambault, SNC's director of flight operations.