Dream Chaser completes major Approach & Landing Test milestone

by Chris Gebhardt

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser has successfully completed the second attempt at its all-important Approach and Landing Test when it was dropped into a free-flight from a helicopter and flew itself to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  The company later confirmed a successful ALT-2 milestone, with more information to be provided on Monday.

Approach and Landing Test 2:

Dream Chaser – Sierra Nevada’s spaceplane – has been ready for her big moment for a number of weeks: the Approach and Landing Test 2 (ALT-2).

The free-flight test involves Dream Chaser taken to altitude by a helicopter and dropped into a free-flight profile which will allow the craft to fly under its own systems and automated guidance down to runway 22L/04R at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.

ALT-2 follows 2013’s ALT-1 – which saw a flawless free-flight until landing gear deployment.

During ALT-1, the left main landing gear failed to deploy and lock into place. Notably, the gear wasn’t part of the dedicated Dream Chaser hardware and was actually salvaged from a fighter jet. 

When Dream Chaser touched down, the craft skidded off the runway – remarkably suffering only cosmetic damage.

The failure unexpectedly demonstrated Dream Chaser’s ability to protect potential future crews in the event of a landing gear failure at touchdown as the crew module was found to be intact and all of the craft’s systems were still operational.

After ALT-1, both Sierra Nevada and NASA deemed the test a success, negating a need to repeat the ALT; however, Sierra Nevada nonetheless opted to repeat all Captive Carry and ALT phases of Dream Chaser’s development.

After the 2013 landing incident, the Dream Chaser ETA (Engineering Test Article) was refurbished and used to validate numerous ground processing activities the flight article Dream Chaser will use.

Earlier this year, the Dream Chaser ETA was transported over land to Edward Air Force Base, where it successfully completed a tow test.

These tow tests saw the vehicle hooked up to a truck and pulled along a concrete runway at Edwards at speeds up to 96.5 km/h (60 mph) through several s-curve turns before being released from the tow mechanism to slide to a stop on its skid strip and tires.

The two tests were successful, paving the way for two Captive Carry (CC) tests in September.

The CC tests saw the Dream Chaser ETA connected to a 234-UT lifting helicopter – the civilian version of the CH-47 Chinook – capable of lifting 11,793 kg (26,000 lb) and of attaining a cruise speed of 120 kts (222 k/h – 138 mph).

The CC tests validated all in-flight transport mechanisms that were needed and were crucial for ALT-2.

Interestingly, the first CC test was webcast live, but the second test occurred in secrecy on 27 September for unknown reasons.  The second CC test saw a simulation of the upcoming ALT-2 test, including a simulated release of Dream Chaser from the lift helicopter.

Both CC tests were successful, clearing the way for the then-scheduled 15 October ALT-2.

In early October, however, devastating and deadly wildfires broke out in California, including the deadliest week for wildfires in the state’s history.

During the week of 6 October, the helicopter to be used for Dream Chaser’s ALT-2 was activated by CalFire to assist with firefighting efforts in and around Santa Rosa, California – located north of San Francisco about 360 miles (579 km) from Edwards.

It is likely the main factor for the ALT-2 test’s delay was the helicopter’s firefighting duties taking obvious precedent over the free-flight test. However, it also allowed SNC to complete a review and rectify an unspecified issue.

Known as the Flight Test Readiness Review (FTRR) for the “Dream Chaser Engineering Test Article (ETA) Approach and Landing Test #2”, the review noted one action item, which was cleared at a follow-up meeting, known as the Delta review.

“Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) completed their Delta Flight Test Readiness Review (FTRR) for the DreamChaser Engineering Test Article (ETA) Approach and Landing Test #2,” noted L2 Commercial Crew status information. “The ETA Approach and Landing Test #2, is scheduled for Nov 5, at AFRC.”

With the Chinook observed as making its way back to the test center for the test, all eyes were on the famous facility. However, no news was provided by SNC or NASA Armstrong since the window opened on November 5. It is likely the teams were waiting for the best weather conditions for the big test.

The window – based on previous ALTs – was days to weeks in length, allowing teams to pick the best opportunity. Despite NASA managers telling the media the latest target was November 14. Sources noted a test was in the offing for Saturday, with NOTAM (A restriction to aircraft notice) posted late on Friday noting a test that was instantly obvious as Dream Chaser’s big day.

The test was conducted on Saturday, but no notice came from SNC or NASA. It took the media – namely Alan Boyle – to finally gain a confirmation note later in the day. SNC are expected to post videos and pictures of the test at some point in the near future.

UN issues “Call for Interest” for Dream Chaser mission:

While NASA’s use of Dream Chaser for uncrewed ISS resupply missions is well known, other organizations are also keenly interested in Dream Chaser and its abilities.

Last year, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) revealed that the supranational organization would use Dream Chaser to provide cheap access to space for uncrewed microgravity science missions for member nations which 1) lacked access to space and 2) had no space program for themselves.

Carrying a target NET (No Earlier Than) launch of sometime in 2021, the UN mission came back to the foreground of Dream Chaser’s proposed non-NASA/ISS resupply services on 25 September 2017 when the UNOOSA issued a “Call for Interest for Dream Chaser Spacecraft Mission Payloads” – including an apparent change to the member nations eligible for participation.

“The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is partnering with the Sierra Nevada Corporation to offer United Nations Member States the opportunity to participate in an orbital space mission utilizing SNC’s Dream Chaser space vehicle,” noted the Call for Interest release.

“The mission will be open to all Member States of the United Nations, and developing countries are particularly encouraged to participate.  The mission will carry experiments, payloads, or satellites provided by institutions in the participating countries.”

While all UN member states are eligible to participate, the Call for Interest notes that “particular attention [will be given] to developing and emerging countries.”

Specifically, all payloads must in some way link to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – a set of 17 targets adopted by UN member states on 25 September 2015 designed to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.”

The goals include: no poverty; affordable and clean energy; climate action; zero hunger; decent work and economic growth; life below water; good health and well-being; industry, innovation and infrastructure; life on land; quality education; reduced inequalities; peace, justice and strong institutions; gender equality; sustainable cities and communities; partnerships for the goals; clean water and sanitation; and responsible consumption and production.

“The purpose of this Call for Interest is to … solicit information from Member States interested in providing experiments, payloads, or satellites that could be flown on this mission … [and] has the objective of gathering information on the interested countries so that UNOOSA may better understand the demand for this type of mission.”

Memorandum of Understanding with the Canadian Space Agency:

In addition to the United Nations and NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is also expressly interested in Dream Chaser.

Earlier this month, Sierra Nevada signed a Memorandum of Understanding with CSA.

The memorandum “explores possibilities of using the Dream Chaser spacecraft for future CSA missions and to facilitate the exchange of information between SNC and Canada” and is a “significant step toward greater collaboration to develop Dream Chaser technologies and applications that are mutually beneficial for SNC, the Canadian space industry and academia,” notes the Memorandum.

“Canada’s world-class reputation as a leader in multiple space technology areas such as robotics has led to this new international collaboration with Sierra Nevada Corporation,” said Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains.

“We are looking forward to providing the expertise of Canadian firms and researchers to help develop next-generation technologies for the Dream Chaser and contribute to its success.”

To this end, a two day “Dream Chaser for Canada” event will take place from 6-7 December 2017 at CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec – during which the various sectors and companies that form Canada’s space industry will have the opportunity to discuss areas of collaboration.

(Images: The United Nations, Sierra Nevada, NASA, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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