All the current launch platforms certified to make supply runs to the International Space Station (ISS) use a parachute to return to Earth after each mission. Although, SpaceX has designs on propulsive landings with its Dragon capsule. Sierra Nevada Corporation has something else in mind with its uncrewed Dream Chaser spacecraft. The Dream Chaser is a fully reusable space plane that can carry a secondary non-reusable cargo module.
Sierra Nevada Corporation has talked about the Dream Chaser in the past, but it just revealed new details about the vehicle at a press conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The star of the show is the new cargo module, which the company calls “Shooting Star.” That module will nest inside the Dream Chaser during launch and station approach. Then, it can autonomously dock with the ISS and pick up waste material. Yes, it takes out the trash, making it probably the fanciest rubbish bin in the world.
Currently, the ISS crew loads important scientific materials onto cargo modules for the return to Earth, but they also carry some waste materials. Shooting Star would pick up the trash and then guide itself into the atmosphere where it incinerates. Meanwhile, the Dream Chaser can go on with its mission and reserve more space for materials ground teams want, and not garbage. The spacecraft will land after each mission at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.
The Dream Chaser sports a few more abilities existing cargo vehicles lack. For example, it can become a short-term orbital platform with an optional inflatable module and additional power capacity. It has also been designed with NASA’s Lunar Gateway in mind. It will be able to dock with the station (with the help of an added satellite bus), allowing it to play a part in the Artemis program to return humans to the lunar surface. It will have to bid on NASA contracts before that happens, though.
Sierra Nevada Corporation is scheduled to send the Dream Chaser on its first of at least six missions to the ISS in 2021. The company doesn’t have to worry about designing a rocket to launch the Dream Chaser, though. It’s partnered with United Launch Alliance to send the Dream Chaser into space atop Vulcan rockets. That rocket is expected to launch for the first time in mid-2021.
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