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SNC's Dream Chaser spacecraft can supply NASA's space station – and become its own orbital platform

Darrell Etherington

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is in the process of developing 'Dream Chaser,' a reusable spacecraft designed to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, and bring it back to Earth, landing on a runway like the Space Shuttle. Today, the company revealed more about the Dream Chaser at a press event at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It literally showed off a new cargo component of the Dream Chaser, with a full-scale model on site – the 'Shooting Star' is an ejectable, disposable secondary cargo vehicle that can itself dock with the ISS while in orbit, take on waste cargo from the station, and then do a controlled de-orbit to burn up in the atmosphere, leaving nothing behind. This expendable component adds a lot of versatility to the Dream Chaser's design, and extends the vehicle's mission capabilities with safe disposal of materials that otherwise wouldn't be suitable for loading aboard the Dream Chaser for its return journey to Earth.

So it's got a nested cargo craft that can itself autonomously dock with the ISS and take out the trash, but that's not the only trick up the Dream Chaser's sleeve: The Shooting Star cargo module will also be able to reach and resupply the Lunar Gateway, a Moon-orbiting space station that NASA plans to deploy to act as a staging point for its lunar surface missions. The Shooting Star will have to have its satellite bus attached to make that trip, but it means it'll be able to participate much more in NASA's Artemis program. Probably not coincidentally, SNC was named as one of the new approved vendors that can bid on NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts (basically deliveries to the Moon's surface).

Dream Chaser's Shooting Star can also actually become an orbital satellite itself – its design allows for an inflatable module to be attached that can essentially convert it into an orbital platform with a very high payload and power capacity with an inflatable module. Multipurpose is the name of the game when it comes to making multi-planetary space-based operations a viable, recurring long-term thing that we can actually accomplish, so Dream Chaser is looking like quite the high-value package if all of this comes together.

Already, Dream Chaser has been tapped by NASA to run commercial resupply services (via the CRS-2 contract – you've probably heard the 'CRS' term because both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop) won the first batch and have been providing those over the course of the last several years. The Dream Chaser spacecraft is currently under construction, and is aiming for 2021 for its first mission on behalf of NASA.