Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser – currently fighting for her future in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – may join forces with Stratolaunch System’s air launch architecture, which is currently undergoing a major program review. SNC announced this week they have designed a scaled version of the Dream Chaser to fly crewed and automated missions with the air launch carrier.
Stratolaunch and Dream Chaser:
Announced at the end of 2011, Stratolaunch was revealed as a collaboration between inventor, investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan.
They envisioned a rocket that would be launched from a giant carrier aircraft, portrayed as having a wingspan of 385 feet, making it the largest airplane, by wingspan, to ever fly.
The aircraft will be powered by six 46,000-66,500 lbf thrust-range jet engines, that have been sourced from two used 747-400s.
These planes are being cannibalized not just for their engines, but also the avionics, flight deck, landing gear and other proven systems that can be recycled to cut development costs.
The first plane is understood to be about 50 percent constructed at its base at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The aircraft is likely to be based at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), a famed facility now under the stewardship of Space Florida for the commercialization of the runway that once hosted numerous Shuttle landings.
While the SLF’s 300 feet wide, 15,000 feet long strip, is firmly in Stratolaunch’s sights as the potential East Coast location for their missions, the focus will initially be to the west, with Stratolaunch systems already signed up to a 20-year lease agreement with the Kern County Airport Authority, Mojave, California, for the lease of 20 acres at Mojave.
SNC is currently protesting NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract award decision, which omitted Dream Chaser from continued funding toward the aspiration of removing NASA’s reliance on the Russian Soyuz. NASA opted to fund SpaceX’s Dragon V2 and Boeing’s CST-100.
During its CCP work, SNC announced they would create a base of processing and mission operations at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), also utilizing the SLF as their primary east coast landing site.
While a successful protest against NASA’s CCtCAP decision would boost Dream Chaser’s outlook, the company had already noted they would press on with the spaceplane’s development, with an eye to attracting international and commercial customers.
“We are aggressively pursuing commercial and international paths for our program, as announced throughout the program, we will to continue to pursue these efforts,” noted SNC after the CCtCap decision.
Now the company has revealed one such potential commercial opportunity, based on a scaled version of their Dream Chaser spaceplane.
The design is for an integrated system for human spaceflight that can be launched to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using Stratolaunch System’s air launch architecture.
The marriage of the two vehicles would utilize one of Dream Chaser’s key strengths, namely her cross-range capability and options to land on a conventional runway.
“Combining a scaled version of SNC’s Dream Chaser with the Stratolaunch air launch system could provide a highly responsive capability with the potential to reach a variety of LEO destinations and return astronauts or payloads to a U.S. runway within 24 hours,” noted Chuck Beames, president, Vulcan Aerospace Corp and executive director for Stratolaunch Systems.
The notional plans class the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human space flight system as being able to carry a crew of two to three astronauts to LEO destinations.
The system can can also be utilized for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation.
“This relationship would expand our portfolio to include the highly flexible Stratolaunch system for launching reusable crewed or uncrewed spacecraft, or for rapid satellite constellation deployment,” added Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.
The Dream Chaser design for riding with the Stratolaunch plane is a 75 percent scale version of the the company’s orbital vehicle.
SNC add that in addition to supporting development of human spaceflight capability, SNC studied satellite launch options and mechanisms, as well as point-to-point transportation options using the Stratolaunch launch system with a Dream Chaser spacecraft derivative.
“The Stratolaunch system is uniquely designed to allow for maximum operational flexibility and payload delivery from several possible operational sites, while minimizing mission constraints such as range availability and weather,” SNC noted.
The news comes as a surprise, given Stratolaunch are currently in a major program review, mainly surrounding the rocket the carrier plane is set to take off with.
That rocket is being designed by Orbital, after taking over the project when Stratolaunch and SpaceX – the initial provider of the rocket – parted ways.
Exclusive details (L2) had noted the Orbital rocket, tagged as Pegasus II, is expected to have a GLOW of 485,000 lbs resulting in a payload capability to Low Earth Orbit of 13,500 lbs.
The first and second stages are made from “carbon-composite wound” cases, with the same outside diameter as the Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) segments.
These two stages will sport additional performance via an updated propellant mix, under development by ATK, who are working to complete a merger with Orbital.
The contract from Orbital includes the design, development and flight hardware for initial Stratolaunch missions and expands on their partnership that dates back to the development of Orbital’s original air-launched vehicle, Pegasus, which also uses ATK solid rocket motors for stage propulsion.
The first two stages will act like a single first stage, given they will provide half of the required Delta-v. However, information notes the first stage may also be recoverable after staging and splashdown.
Once the solid stages have been expended, a restartable cryogenic third stage was understood to be the preference.
This would utilize two Aerojet Rocketdyne (PWR) RL-10 engines for the development and early flights of the rocket, pending the development of a higher thrust LOX-Hydrogen unit.
However, the review into the rocket system is understood to be looking at an all-solid version of the rocket.
As such, Aerojet has been given a stop work order for the upper stage engine work, per L2 information.
Meanwhile, ATK has been asked to evaluate and price a two stage replacement for the liquid upper stage, believed to be a Castor 30 combo (XL and/or B).
This review will last until the end of the year, which should still allow for the test launch of the Stratolaunch system in 2018.
(Images: via Orbital, SNC, Stratolaunch, ATK and L2).
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