Sierra Nevada chooses the future Vulcan rocket to fly around the Earth with its mini-space plane

Private space company Sierra Nevada Corporation announced today that its mini-space plane, the Dream Chaser, will be in orbit on top of the future Vulcan Centaur rocket from the United Launch Alliance. The Dream Chaser still has to see space, but once it is operational, it will assist between 2021 and 2024 ferry and scientific experiments to astronauts aboard the international space station.

The Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is one of three companies that orders NASA to periodically visit the ISS to ensure that the station is fully supplied. The cargo missions are all part of NASA & # 39; s Commercial Resupply Services Program, one of the few space agency initiatives designed to unload space transportation to the private space industry. The other two companies in the program, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, have been launching cargo to the station since 2012, thanks to a first round of contracts. But NASA awarded a second contract round in 2016, which added SNC to the supplier pool.

SNC has been developing the Dream Chaser since 2004, which looks a lot like a miniature Space Shuttle. The plan is for the Dream Chaser to fly vertically in orbit around a rocket and then meet the ISS. Once all the cargo that has been transported has been unloaded and the mission has been completed, the Dream Chaser will separate itself from the ISS and then re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike other space capsules that use parachutes, the Dream Chaser will land on an aircraft and glide horizontally on a runway.

Image: ULA

The company originally planned to launch the Dream Chaser on ULA's Atlas V to transport astronauts to and from the ISS for NASA, and the team even received initial development funding from the space agency to work on a manned vehicle. But NASA eventually awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to send people to the space station. So SNC decided to rework the Dream Chaser to only carry cargo, and the company now has the task of launching a total of 12,000 pounds of cargo on at least six NASA delivery missions. The company claims that in the future there is still the possibility of having people fly on Dream Chaser.

SNC has other plans for its Dream Chaser, including the launch of an international cargo to the United Nations as early as 2021. But there is still a lot of work to be done before Dream Chaser shoots up on a Vulcan rocket. First, the Vulcan must first fly. ULA has already begun bending metal for the rocket, which is derived from the company's already operational Atlas V. But the first flight should only take place in 2021.

In the meantime, SNC has conducted tests on the Dream Chaser and performed the second free flight of the vehicle in 2017, demonstrating that the spacecraft can successfully land from a super-high altitude. The flight was much more successful than the first test in 2013, when the landing gear of the vehicle dropped out and the space plane slipped on landing the runway. More tests are planned for the coming years as SNC prepares for the first launch of the Dream Chaser.