Aerospace & Defence

Sierra Space reinvents space transportation with Dream Chaser

2nd June 2024
Paige West

Sierra Space announced the successful completion of a rigorous environmental test suite on the Dream Chaser spaceplane, Tenacity, at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio.

As the first Dream Chaser moves toward orbital operations, Sierra Space and NASA test team members are preparing the vehicle, along with its Shooting Star cargo companion, for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida for final testing and integration ahead of its inaugural launch later this year.

“Successful completion of an incredibly rigorous environmental testing campaign in close partnership with NASA is a significant milestone and puts Dream Chaser on track for operations later this year,” said Sierra Space CEO, Tom Vice. “This is the year that we transition from rigorous research and development to regular orbital operations and – in doing so – transform the way we connect space and Earth.”

Over the past several months, Dream Chaser and Shooting Star have undergone intense shock, vibration, and thermal vacuum testing at the sprawling Armstrong Test Facility. In December, the test teams conducted shock tests with Sierra Space’s launch partner United Launch Alliance (ULA), using the flight separation system that will deploy the spacecraft from the upper stage of ULA’s second Vulcan Centaur rocket.

The two vehicles were then stacked in launch configuration on the world’s most powerful spacecraft shaker table inside the test centre’s Mechanical Vibration Facility. Sine vibration testing – conducted over a five-week period – simulated the intense conditions and environment of a launch on a Vulcan Centaur rocket. After vibe testing concluded, the teams conducted another shock test – this time with the flight separation system between Dream Chaser and Shooting Star – to simulate the dynamic environment during separation of the two vehicles prior to de-orbit and re-entry.

Next, the Sierra Space and NASA test teams transported the vehicles to the In-Space Propulsion Facility at Armstrong for thermal vacuum or ‘T-VAC’ testing. Temperatures in space can range from extremely cold – hundreds of degrees below freezing – to several hundred degrees Fahrenheit due to radiation from the sun. TVAC testing is a realistic thermal simulation of the flight environment and critical to ensuring mission success. For more than five weeks, Dream Chaser and Shooting Star were subjected to multiple cold-hot cycles in a vacuum environment, between -150 to +250°F, with teams conducting functional tests at temperature plateaus to verify system performance.

Dream Chaser and Shooting Star will soon be transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre and staged inside the Space Systems Processing Facility (SSPF) – originally built to be the last stop for components of the International Space Station – for final integration and testing. The final environmental tests – acoustic testing and electromagnetic interference and compatibility testing – will be performed onsite inside the SSPF. Remaining work on the thermal protection system will also be completed there.

Dream Chaser Tenacity, the first in a fleet of spaceplanes, remains on track for a 2024 launch on the first of seven missions to resupply the International Space Station for NASA under a Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2) contract. A second spaceplane, named Reverence, is in production in Sierra Space’s Louisville, Colorado, factory.

Armstrong Test Facility is part of NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland. Located on 6,400 acres in Sandusky, Ohio, it is home to some of the world’s largest and most capable space simulation test facilities, where ground tests are conducted for the US and international space and aeronautics communities.

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