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    HomeScienceDream Chaser spaceplane reusable and runway-ready

    Dream Chaser spaceplane reusable and runway-ready

    When NASA’s space shuttle program ended after 30 years in July 2011, so too did a familiar sight often captured on television news clips – the hulking black-and-white orbiters coming in for a landing after hundreds of successful orbits around the Earth, wheels fully extended and gliding into a runway like a normal airplane.

    Now, as part of NASA’s goal of sending supplies to the International Space Station aboard a reusable spacecraft that can reenter the atmosphere and land safely without having to plunge into the ocean, such a new spaceplane is expected to launch itself into the spotlight this year.

    Designed and built by Sierra Space at the company’s headquarters in Louisville, Colorado, the first Dream Chaser spaceplane – called Tenacity – has undergone rigorous environmental testing at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio since November.

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    Bolstered by a 2016 Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract from NASA to carry cargo to and from the ISS, the unmanned craft is the first of the company’s spaceplane fleet and is slated to provide a minimum of seven uncrewed cargo missions to and from the ISS.

    What is the Dream Chaser?

    In development for more than a decade, the Dream Chaser may eventually carry a human crew in its next evolution, but for now and for the parameters of this contract, the vehicle is autonomous, receiving commands from the company’s Mission Control Center in Colorado until it reaches ISS.

    Tenacity, along with an attached cargo module called Shooting Star, is set to deliver 12,000 pounds – roughly the weight of two Ford F-150s – to the International Space Station. The cargo can include just about anything – food, water and supplies for the astronauts, scientific equipment and spare parts for the station.

    With no need to accommodate human crew, most of the available space in Tenacity is freed up for the carefully stacked cargo, and this version of the spaceplane has no windows.

    Angie Wise, chief safety officer and senior vice president safety & mission assurance at Sierra Space, said the loading process for most of the cargo will begin 30 days prior to launch, but the NASA contract called for a window of 24 to 48 hours prior to launch for live cargo, cold packs and other temperature-sensitive gear.

    “Our team likes to refer to it as professional Tetris,” Wise said. “Here at our Louisville facility, we not only train our crew how to load and unload our vehicle, we bring astronaut crews into our facility to learn how to receive our vehicle, open the hatch and load and unload the cargo.”

    While berthed at the ISS, the process to unload and reload Tenacity will take roughly 35 to 75 days, daily crew time allotted to the unloading and reloading is limited.

    ISS crew will also load items meant to be destroyed onto Shooting Star, which will not make the return trip to Earth. After Tenacity detaches from the ISS and begins its deorbit burn, the cargo module will detach from Tenacity and burn up on reentry, along with its contents.

    How will the spaceplane reach and connect to the International Space Station?

    After Tenacity and Shooting Star complete their final environmental testing at Armstrong, NASA will ship the spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center to begin loading and prepping them for launch.

    Tenacity is hitching its ride to low-earth orbit packed inside a 5-meter payload fairing of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Here are the main phases of Tenacity’s mission to and from the ISS:

    While Sierra Space says the Dream Chaser is capable of landing on large commercial runways, NASA requested that Tenacity land at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center to allow crews to retrieve cargo, hardware and sensitive science experiments more quickly.

    According to Matthew Clarke, chief brand officer and senior vice president marketing communications for Sierra Space, Florida is ideal for these missions.

    “By landing in Florida, we can remove the cargo and access it very quickly so in contrast to solutions that we’ve got around us today, we’re not landing in an ocean, it doesn’t take a massive amount of time for us to access it,” he said. “That’s kind of the big difference for us in terms of what we’re offering.”

    Wise noted that because of the thousands of proprietary foam-like thermal tiles that cover Dream Chaser, the spacecraft is capable of cooling off quickly after landing, making unloading time-sensitive cargo more efficient.

    “While we can get up to 3,000 degrees on reentry, within 30 minutes (Tenacity) has cooled off enough that we can approach the vehicle and get all of the cargo and hardware out of it,” she said.

    How does the Tenacity spaceplane compare to the space shuttle?

    From nose to tail, the Tenacity measures just under 30 feet in length, roughly a quarter of the length of a NASA space shuttle orbiters.

    Unlike the space shuttles, which required solid rocket boosters and main engines collectively creating 7.8 million pounds of thrust to launch, the Tenacity’s smaller size and folding wings make it compatible with a variety of launch vehicle systems.

    SOURCES Sierra Space; NASA; Florida Today

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