NASA Gives Dreamchaser the Shakedown

It’s been a while since NASA has had a spaceplane on the launchpad but this now feels closer than ever again. Their new prototype cargo spaceplane known as Dream Chaser is now undergoing vibration and vacuum testing at the Neil Armstrong test facility. The tests sound a little strange perhaps but on launch and during re-entry it will most definitely experience shaking during these phases of the flights. 

The Dream Chaser spaceplane has been designed to attach to the top of a conventional Vulcan Centaur rocket and land like a plane. Its propulsion is to be a cluster of propane and nitrous oxide Vortex engines which differs from the originally planned hybrid rocket engines. The plane has an expendable cargo module called Shooting Star which can carry an additional 4,500 kg of cargo. It’s been designed so that it can dispose of unwanted cargo by burning up on re-entry. 

The spaceplane and its new cargo unit have been going through rigorous testing at the NASA facility since the 1st February. It’s without doubt one of the worlds largest and best equipped test facilities that can simulate the harsh conditions experienced during space flight. 

First up for Dream Chaser is the shock test which is the jolt experienced when the plane is separated from the cargo module. It stays on the spacecraft shaker system (a giant table supported on pneumatics and springs that can shake a payload/spacecraft at up to 100 vibrations per second to simulate the violent shaking experienced during launch) to undergo vibration tests before another shock test is completed. On completion of the tests, the spacecraft will undergo a rigorous examination to identify any issues that may have surfaced. 

Once Dream Chaser has completed this first suite of tests, it will move into the huge vacuum chamber to experience the lower ambient pressures experienced in space. Low temperatures and simulated dynamic solar heating will all go further to test the space planes readiness for space. 

The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

If the tests are successful then Dream Chaser is well on its way to its first uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station later in 2024 as part of NASAs Commercial Resupply program. It won’t be completely empty though, it will deliver just over 3,500kg of cargo to the ISS. 

If the first flight is successful then there are variants of the plane under development including an additional crewed variant that can carry up to seven passengers to low Earth orbit and a National Security Variant, the details of which are being kept under strict security protocols.

Source : NASA Spaceplane Shaken at NASA Test Facility