The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a contract with the American space company Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) to take part in developing hardware for the next generation space shuttle Dream Chaser.
The Dream Chaser project is a part of Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program that aims to provide the US space agency with the capability to transport astronauts to Earth orbit. The space plane, being the only lifting-body vehicle under development in the framework of the programme, is considered a successor to the Space Shuttle. Similarly to the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is designed to land on a runway in a same way as an aircraft.
The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 meant the loss of Nasa’s ability to carry human crews to space. Since then, the agency had to rely on Russian services.
Following the signing of a memorandum of understanding, ESA will work with SNC to identify how European hardware, software and expertise can contribute to advancing the capabilities of the Dream Chaser orbital crew vehicle.
ESA believes its advanced berthing and docking mechanism designed for use on the International Space Station (ISS) could be successfully employed on the Dream Chaser. The mechanism enables the vehicle to be actively captured and connected to the orbital outpost.
In the first phase of the cooperation, suitable technologies and methods will be evaluated before proceeding to any practical applications in the Dream Chaser project.
The arrangement will allow ESA to test its hardware in space aboard a manned aircraft, while it will enable SNC to reduce development cost and time.
The initial evaluation period is expected to last throughout the 2014 and will be followed by a long-term agreement leading to flight operations.
Eventually ESA and SNC could create an industrial consortium that would include other European partners interested in participating in the future Dream Chaser missions.
Dream Chaser, apart from carrying astronauts to and from orbit, could also serve as a platform for technology demonstrations, construction and repair in space.
SNC has also entered a similar cooperative framework with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).
“With the start of these new relationships with ESA and DLR we are able to continue to expand the Dream Chaser Space System globally,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems. “The combined strengths of our partner space agencies, industrial companies and education institutions will significantly advance space education, exploration and, for various missions such as microgravity science, spacecraft servicing, debris removal, and materials manufacturing, provide economic benefits to all partners and strengthen US and international ties,” he said.