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Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.

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Cosmic Space

Space plane’s schedule slips due to COVID

Sierra Nevada Corp. is closing in on the orbital debut of its Dream Chaser space plane, but the curtain-raiser will be later than previously planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company had planned to send its first space-worthy Dream Chaser, dubbed Tenacity, on its first uncrewed cargo run to the International Space Station next year.

Then COVID-19 hit.

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Dynetics and SNC team up for lunar lander

Lunar lander
An artist’s conception shows Dynetics’ design for a lunar lander. (Dynetics Illustration)

Alabama-based Dynetics says it’s leading a team of companies proposing a crew-carrying lunar lander for NASA, in competition with other companies including Blue Origin and Boeing.

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NASA adds 5 companies to moon delivery list

Blue Moon lander
Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander is designed for deliveries to the moon. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is among five companies that have just been cleared to deliver payloads to the moon for NASA. So is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is offering its Starship super-rocket for lunar trips.

Sierra Nevada Corp., Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems round out today’s list, joining nine other commercial teams that were put into NASA’s “catalog” for lunar delivery services a year ago. NASA has already picked two of those teams, headed by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, to put science experiments on the moon in 2021.

The next delivery orders in what NASA calls the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS, are likely to call for payloads to be launched by 2022, said Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science mission directorate. One payload that’s certain to be on the list is NASA’s VIPER rover, which is destined to look for signs of water near the moon’s south pole in late 2022.

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Vulcan rocket chosen for 2021 moon launch

Vulcan rocket illustration
An artist’s conception shows United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket lifting off. (ULA Illustration)

United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket – and Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine – have been chosen to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander as well as Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to the final frontier in 2021.

Neither of the past week’s announcements is all that surprising, because Astrobotic and SNC both had previous agreements to use ULA’s current-generation Atlas 5 rocket. But both announcements underscore the importance of holding to the current schedule for rolling out the BE-4 as well as the Vulcan, which is designed to use two BE-4 engines on its first-stage booster.

Blue Origin, the privately held space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is thought to be in the final stages of testing the BE-4’s performance – not only for ULA’s Vulcan but also for its own orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which is also due for its maiden flight in 2021.

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SNC gears up to build spaceship (and space station)

Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser atmospheric test vehicle is on display at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sierra Nevada Corp. is showing off a prototype of its Dream Chaser space plane, but its focus is quickly shifting to building the real thing to send to orbit.

And as if that’s not enough, there’s an orbital power plant and space habitat to work on as well.

SNC executives provided what they promised would be a series of status reports today here at the 34th Space Symposium, in front of the engineering test vehicle for the Dream Chaser program.

The 30-foot-long, stubby-winged plane was built for atmospheric tests, to check the aerodynamics and flight control systems for an autonomous mini-space shuttle that will be capable of ferrying cargo to and from the International Space Station starting in 2020.

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SNC and Blue Origin show off space hardware

Buzz Aldrin and Mark Sirangelo
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Mark Sirangelo get an early look at SNC’s Dream Chaser atmospheric test plane. (SNC Photo)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —  A year after Blue Origin put its New Shepard rocket booster on public display for the first time, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture has brought its BE-4 rocket engine here for one of the nation’s premier space conferences.

But this time, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp. is taking up at least as much of the spotlight at the 34th Space Symposium with the prototype for its Dream Chaser mini-space shuttle.

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Watch SNC’s mini-space shuttle ace flight test

Last weekend’s drop test of a prototype Dream Chaser space plane went so well that the next flight might be the one that goes all the way to the International Space Station in 2020, Sierra Nevada Corp. executives said today.

The road ahead depends on the performance data that was gained when the engineering test article glided down to a picture-perfect runway landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Nov. 11.

But if the results are as positive as preliminary readouts suggest, the 30-foot-long plane can go into retirement after just two free-flying tests, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area. “This vehicle will not need further flight tests,” he told reporters.

The data from the test will be used to fine-tune the design for a space-worthy version of the Dream Chaser, which is due to take shape over the next couple of years.

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Dream Chaser space glider passes big test

Dream Chaser landing
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s prototype Dream Chaser space plane lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California after a drop test. (NASA Photo via Twitter)

Sierra Nevada Corp. said its Dream Chaser prototype space plane glided to a successful landing in California’s Mojave Desert today after being dropped from a helicopter.

Today’s uncrewed test at Edwards Air Force Base marked the first time the Dream Chaser flew freely through the air since 2013. That earlier flight was also judged successful, but the landing gear failed to deploy correctly, which caused the winged vehicle to skid off the runway and crash.

Over the years that followed, SNC repaired and upgraded the aerodynamic test vehicle in preparation for a new series of flight tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, within Edwards’ property.

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U.N. puts out global call for space payloads

Dream Chaser
An artist’s conception shows Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser space plane. (SNC Illustration)

Remember those science-fiction movies where the United Nations was calling the shots in space? We may be one small step closer to that scenario.

Today the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, or UNOOSA, called on its member states, and particularly developing countries, to come up with suggestions for 20 to 30 payloads that would go on an orbital space mission it’s planning with Sierra Nevada Corp.

SNC would fly the payloads — which could include scientific experiments as well as deployable satellites — aboard its Dream Chaser space plane during a two- to three-week flight.

In its call for interest, UNOOSA said each payload should address at least one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which range from eliminating poverty and hunger to producing affordable and clean energy.

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