A California-based start-up owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is considering purchasing a three-seater version of Dream Chaser, the space plane concept rejected by Nasa.
Stratolaunch, which is building a gigantic airplane that will serve as an airborne launch pad for putting satellites – and eventually people – into orbit, wants the Dream Chaser plane to become a part of its orbital transportation system.
The announcement, made on Wednesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, gives new prospects to Sierra Nevada, the space plane’s developer, which is currently challenging Nasa's decision to award contracts worth $6.8bn for space taxi development and flights to competitors Boeing and SpaceX
Unlike Dream Chaser, which resembles the retired Space Shuttle, Boeing’s and SpaceX’s concepts both feature a simpler capsule-like design.
The US General Accountability Office is expected to issue its ruling on the challenge by Sierra Nevada, which was filed on Friday, by 5 January 2015.
Whatever the outcome, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada said it would continue developing its Dream Chaser space plane, intended to carry up to seven people to the low Earth orbit.
The possible cooperation with Stratolaunch could open new possibilities to the company.
The system developed by Stratolaunch is a giant plane with a wingspan of 117m, powered by six 747-class engines. According to Stratolaunch executive director Charles Beames, the plane, assembled in the Mojave Desert, is halfway finished.
Initially, the system is intended to deliver satellites weighing up to 6,124kg into orbits between 180km and 2,000km above Earth. A debut test flight is expected in 2018.
Instead of a satellite, the Stratolaunch airplane could also launch a Dream Chaser spaceship, which would be outfitted with an as-yet-unspecified upper-stage rocket motor.
"Dream Chaser seemed to be the logical way to go," Beames told reporters in Toronto. "We feel pretty good that we have enough analysis there. Paul just hasn't made a decision yet."
He said Allen is expected to make a decision on the project before the end of the year.
Read E&T's exclusive feature about the story behind Dream Chaser