An autonomous space plane will be added to the fleet of International Space Station cargo delivery vehicles following an announcement of new NASA re-supply contracts.
The Dream Chaser space plane that lands on a runway like an aeroplane and launches with the help of a rocket will join the duo of privately operated space capsules – SpaceX’s reusable Dragon and Orbital ATK’s disposable Cygnus.
NASA’s decision to add a third spacecraft to the portfolio was likely motivated by serious launch accidents that grounded both freighters for several months within the space of a year.
Built by Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation, the space shuttle-inspired concept was previously rejected by NASA to carry astronauts.
“The Dream Chaser Cargo System offers NASA a safe, reliable and affordable solution for ISS cargo delivery, return and disposal, ensuring the effective utilisation and sustainability of the ISS for years to come,” said Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.
With the first flight expected to take place in 2019, Dream Chaser will perform at least six more cargo delivery missions for the American space agency until 2024.
NASA said the space plane, which will be launching from Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, will provide more opportunities for research on animals. Unlike the Dragon capsule, which lands in the ocean and needs to be recovered and taken to land, Dream Chaser would deliver its cargo right to NASA’s facilities in Cape Canaveral.
"There are a lot of reasons to use animal studies to look at things like balance and sensory motor effects (of microgravity), and those are going to change so rapidly on return that we need to have the animals back right away," said ISS chief scientist Julie Robinson.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have also received new contracts to continue with their services beyond 2019. The three companies will now split $14bn of funding, although terms of individual contracts have not been disclosed.
Boeing and Lockheed-Martin’s joined bid was previously rejected.
NASA estimates it will need about four cargo runs per year, but expects to spend ‘significantly’ less than $14bn overall, according to station program manager Kirk Shireman.
"Price was very, very important in terms of selecting these three companies, but they are so diverse in their capabilities," Shireman said.