The future of space exploration will largely rely on the supersonic spaceplane Dream Chaser: the first launch will depart in 2023 with a cargo mission, and the first manned mission is due in 2026.
1. Next-generation spacecraft
Nearly a decade in the making, Dream Chaser is the next-generation spacecraft under development by the Colorado-based aerospace company Sierra Space, part of the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). A supersonic spaceplane, this spaceship is scheduled to transport space tourists to the Orbital Reef, Blue Origin’s low-orbit commercial space station due to open by the end of the decade and to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).
The plane uses a nontoxic propellant which allows it to land anywhere in the world similarly to how a Boeing 747 or Airbus A380 can. Dream Chaser will use SNC’s upper-stage Vortex engine, which is low cost and uses fewer toxic fuels that can ignite at high altitudes. The hypersonic spacecraft can be re-used roughly 15 times, it’s compact, with a short wingspan and total length of 9 meters. By comparison, the NASA space shuttle, retired in 2011, measures four times longer.
2. Resupply the ISS
Dream Chaser is one of NASA’s commercial resupply services and it will join the fleet of utility spacecraft like SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus module — both of which hold the important task of transporting cargo to the ISS. However, while Dragon cargo carries up to 1,500 kilograms and Cygnus 3,700 kilograms, Dream Chaser can carry up to 5,500 kilograms or a dozen of passengers. The spacecraft features a separate cargo module that is specifically designed to be filled with about 3,400 kilograms of waste from the ISS, expected to be released during descent and burn up into the atmosphere.
As Sierra Space prepares Dream Chaser for missions to the International Space Station in 2023, we move another step forward in realizing our team’s mission to build a platform in space to benefit life on Earth. pic.twitter.com/GYDzOV9yB4— Sierra Space (@SierraSpaceCo) November 14, 2022
3. LIFE habitat
There is yet another difference between the two as the Dream Chaser is actually shaped like a plane and it is designed to land back on Earth, just like a regular plane. A striking feature from this next-generation spacecraft is the Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE), an inflatable structure that attaches to the back of the spaceplane and expands in orbit into globular living quarters measuring 8 meters in diameter. The soft material can deflect the impact of meteors and other space debris better than titanium or Kevlar and the latest tests of November 15 have exceeded NASA certification requirements, according to SNC.
The LIFE habitat module is essential technology for enabling humans to safely and comfortably begin to develop new civilizations in space.Tom Vice, Sierra Space CEO
“This project will service many different opportunities for the new space economy, and the results of this most recent test and milestone are testament to the progress our team is making to enable the next chapter in space commercialization.
4. Aerodynamic structure
Another big distinction from actual airplanes lies on the Dream Chaser’s aerodynamic structure. The vehicle is dubbed a “lifting-body” spacecraft since it can lift as a result of air pressure coming from the underside of its body, which is wide, flat and equipped with heat-resistance silica-based tiles and a new material called “TUFROC”.
The high-temperature material will be used on the nose and wing leading edges of the Dream Chaser spacecraft. Back in 2015, arc jet test results supported certification of the manufacturing capability of “TUFROC”, according to SNC.