ESA backs spaceplane

An investment of approximately €33million is being made by the European Space Agency in a spaceplane which is designed to deliver cargo to the ISS. Investment began several years ago and the agency has already spent €20million on the venture.

The spaceplane is Dream Chaser and following NASA’s selection of this vehicle to operate alongside Dragon and Cygnus, it is a first-step on a path that could see Sierra Nevada Corporation, the spaceplane’s owner, sending astronauts to the ISS in an evolved derivative version.

Work with ESA slowed after SNC failed to get a contract to develop the spaceplane for crew use but as revealed in the March edition of Spaceflight due out in a couple of weeks, NASA has now funded the company for its cargo version. Now that has happened ESA has closed a deal settling several years of anticipation.

ESA is working with SNC to launch the Dream Chaser cargo spaceplane on top of an Ariane 5 rocket, a design configuration that includes folding wings to allow the vehicle to be encapsulated within the payload shroud. The Dream Chaser is also compatible with the Atlas V rocket and because of this it has a flexibility which provides an advantage should one system be grounded through failure.

The contract with NASA commits SNC to fly six cargo flights to the ISS through the end of 2024 and has elevated the status of the programme to new heights, stimulating investment and opening up a wide range of new possibilities, returning another spaceplane to the Kennedy Space Centre for touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility; NASA has already struck a deal for the landing of the X-37B at the SLF in future.

Europe has long had a fascination with spaceplanes and many original ideas have flowed from the drawing boards of European aerospace companies over several decades. Some of those have come close to realisation, the closest of all being the French Hermes which was pushed as a compatible concept for the Ariane V rocket when that launcher was conceived. Elements of its payload carrying capacity were incorporated into the definitive Ariane V.

Europe now seems cooperation with SNC as a stepping stone to more advanced involvement and ESA has already conducted preliminary evaluation of the possibility that a future crew-carrying Dream Chaser – the model originally touted to NASA – could be launched by Ariane 5 from Kourou.

With increasing interest in the use of spaceplanes for conducting scientific experiments, Dream Chaser joins Lynx and derivatives of SpaceshipTwo as potential candidates for microgravity research, the SNC design being capable of orbital flight whereas the other two provide suborbital capabilities.

David Baker

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