Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle to Fly ISS Resupply Missions on ULA Atlas V

The first two missions of the unmanned Dream Chaser mini-shuttle carrying critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) will fly on the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket and start as soon as 2020, announced Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

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Carnival of Space #497

Welcome, come in to the 497th Carnival of Space! The Carnival is a community of space science and astronomy writers and bloggers, who submit their best work each week for your benefit. I’m Susie Murph, part of the team at Universe Today and CosmoQuest. So now, on to this week’s stories! Over at Planetaria, Paul […]

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Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts

SNC's Dream Chaser Spacecraft a

A shuttle will soar again from American soil before this decade is out, following NASA’s announcement today (Jan 14) that an unmanned version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane was among the trio of US awardees winning commercial contracts to ship essential cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2019.

In addition to the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada, NASA decided to retain both of the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

Thus with today’s announcement, NASA decided to plus up the number of ISS commercial cargo providers from two to three for the critical task of ensuring the regular delivery of critical science, crew supplies, provisions, spare parts and assorted gear to the multinational crews living and working aboard the orbiting outpost.

By adding a new third provider, NASA simultaneously gains the benefit of additional capability and flexibility and also spreads out the risk.

Unlike the Cygnus and Dragon which land via parachutes, the reusable Dream Chaser is capable of low-g reentry and runway landings. This is very beneficial for sensitive scientific experiments and allows much quicker access by researchers to time critical cargo. Dream Chaser will be capable of delivering 5,500 kg of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the ISS.

Each of the three aerospace firms “is guaranteed a minimum of six cargo resupply missions through 2024,” said Sam Scimemi, ISS Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in announcing the three awards at today’s media briefing.

These new awards secure continuing ISS resupply through its currently approved operational period to 2024 by all the partners except ESA – which is still evaluating its options.

The award to Sierra Nevada amounts to a huge reversal of fortune for the Dream Chaser spaceplane – which lost out in its prior bid in 2014 to win a commercial crew program (CCP) contract to fly a manned version of Dream Chaser from NASA.

The Boeing Starliner CST-100 and SpaceX crew Dragon ultimately were awarded the CCP contracts in September 2014 to fly astronauts to the ISS. The first crewed launches are expected in 2017.

Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK suffered catastrophic launch failures during ISS resupply missions, in June 2015 and October 2014 respectively, from which both firms are still in the process of fully recovering from.

The new contracts were awarded as part of NASA’s long awaited second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts to obtain regular and reliable cargo delivery services to the space station from 2019 through 2024. Other covered services include the disposal of unneeded cargo, and the return of research samples and other cargo from the station back to NASA and researchers.

The first round of CRS awards to SpaceX and Orbital ATK was made in late 2008. The goal was to replace the critical cargo delivery services formerly provided by NASA’s trio of manned space shuttle orbiters, that were subsequently retired in 2011. Shuttle flights ended before either of the private cargo freighters were ready to liftoff.

Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been flying their commercial Dragon and Cygnus resupply ships to the ISS. The first cargo flight by occurred in 2012 under the initial CRS contract.

“So far over 35,000 pounds of cargo has been delivered to the ISS,” said Scimemi.

“Commercial resupply a new way of doing business. We are learning. But it has not been easy. Both original providers had launch failures.”

The new contracts also include funding ISS integration, flight support equipment, special tasks and studies, and NASA requirement changes.

“Few would have imagined back in 2010 when President Barack Obama pledged that NASA would work ‘with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable,’ that less than six years later we’d be able to say commercial carriers have transported 35,000 pounds of space cargo (and counting!) to the International Space Station — or that we’d be so firmly on track to return launches of American astronauts to the ISS from American soil on American commercial carriers. But that is exactly what is happening,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“Today’s announcement is a big deal that will move the president’s vision further into the future.”

The new awards start today as NASA negotiates the specifics of which company will fly what cargo and when for example.

“The second generation of commercial cargo services to low-Earth orbit begins today,” said Kirk Shireman, ISS Program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“By engaging American companies for cargo transportation, we can focus our attention on using this one-of-a-kind laboratory in the sky to continue advancing scientific knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.”

The next currently scheduled American ISS commercial cargo flights are slated to take place in the next two months or so.

“The next Orbital ATK mission named OA-6 will launch on March 10 from Cape Canaveral,” Scimemi told Universe Today.

“SpaceX will announce the date of their next mission named CRS-8 soon.”

Other current cargo providers to the ISS include the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV vessels.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Space Stories to Watch in 2016

An artist's conception of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. image credit: NASA

2015 was an amazing year in space, as worlds such as Pluto and Ceres snapped into sharp focus. 2015 also underlined the mantra that ‘space in hard,’ as SpaceX rode the roller coaster from launch failure, to a dramatic return to flight in December, complete with a nighttime landing of its stage 1 Falcon 9 rocket back at Cape Canaveral. So, what’s in store for 2016? How about a mission to Mars, Jupiter, and – just maybe — a groundbreaking discovery in astrophysics? Here’s our drill-down of space stories to watch in 2016:

Juno Arrives at Jupiter

After several years of space travel, NASA’s Juno mission will enter orbit around Jupiter next year. Launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5th, 2011, Juno will only be the second spacecraft to enter orbit around Jupiter, and the first mission to the outer solar system that won’t utilize nuclear power. Instead, Juno is equipped with three enormous bus-sized solar panels. Juno will study the magnetosphere, magnetic field and gravitational environment of Jove in its wide-ranging path. Expect Juno to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4th, 2016.

Gravitational Waves Discovered?

Could astronomers directly detect gravitational waves in the coming year… just over a century after Einstein’s special theory of relativity predicted them? It’s a very real possibility, as the Advanced LIGO project went online in late 2015. Sporting ten times the sensitivity of the original LIGO project, Advanced LIGO ‘should’ detect gravitational waves generated by black hole and pulsar mergers and extra-galactic supernovae. If it doesn’t, something is seriously wrong with our theories of cosmology. This could be the physics story of 2016 along the lines of the CERN Higgs-Boson discovery, if direct detection is accomplished.

Heavy Rockets Take Flight

Both China and SpaceX may debut their heavy lift rockets in 2016. China is set to perform its inaugural launch of its Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang Space Center sometime in the next year. Meanwhile, SpaceX is set to launch its Falcon Heavy lift rocket from the Kennedy Space Center this coming April. Yeah, I know: we’ve been chasing this one as a ‘space story to watch’ for a couple years now… but 2016 looks like the year that the Falcon Heavy will indeed break the surly bonds. And NASA’s SLS heavy lifter? Expect the first uncrewed flight in the 2018 time frame, with astronauts riding atop the rocket beyond low Earth orbit three years beyond that.

Dream Chaser Launch

The Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to conduct the first orbital launch of their Dream Chaser spacecraft in 2016. A space plane looking like a miniature space shuttle, Dream Chaser will launch vertically atop an Atlas V rocket, then land on a runway like an aircraft. The Dream Chaser can carry a crew of seven. Expect to see the first historic launch of Dream Chaser from the Kennedy Space Center on November 1st, 2016.

A Mission to Mars

NASA’s InSight Lander may have been grounded earlier this month, but the European Space Agency still plans its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission to Mars in the Spring of 2016, along with the joint ESA/Roscomos Schiaparelli technology demonstrator lander. This lander is set to test tech needed for the 2018 ExoMars rover. Hey, this could be Russia’s first successful landing on the Red Planet after seven tries!

Rosetta ‘Crashes’ into a Comet

Rosetta’s mission orbiting a comet will come to a dramatic end in 2016, with a ‘controlled crash’ into comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission arrived at Comet 67/P C-G on August 6th, 2014, gave us some amazing insights into the bizarro world of cometary life, and deposited the Philae lander on the surface, to boot. Expect Rosetta to come to rest on the surface of the comet on September 30th, 2016.

Cassini’s Final Year at Saturn

In orbit around Saturn for over a decade, 2016 is the last full year of operations for Cassini, which will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn in 2017. The only mission to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini has given us some stunning views of the planet, its system of rings and moons, and delivered the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander to the surface of Titan on January 14th, 2005. As the end of Cassini’s life nears, expect engineers to perform some bold close flybys of Saturn’s moons, and thread the ring system of Saturn for some final spectacular closeups.

A Exoplanet Bonanza 

Amid the usual press releases of the ‘hottest, fastest, weirdest,’ could we find something truly groundbreaking in 2016? Maybe exomoons, better images through direct detection, etc? On Earth, systems such as the Gemini Planet Imager are giving us progressively better direct views of exoplanets, and missions such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) are set to carry on Kepler’s legacy in 2018. Small bet: the current tally of exoplanets sits at 2,041 at the close of 2015; by 2020, that number will have grown to 10,000.

A Serious SETI Search

SETI got a boost in 2015 with the Breakthrough Listen initiative, which gets underway in earnest in 2016. Breakthrough Listen is a 10 year, $100 million dollar initiative funded under Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives. Combining search time split between the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, and the Parkes Telescope in Australia, expect Breakthrough Listen to begin combing the 1-to-10 GHz ‘quiet zone’ of the radio spectrum over a greater swath of sky than ever before starting in late 2016.

Iridium Satellites: the NEXT Generation

The new generation of Iridium mobile phone satellites, known as IridiumNEXT, begins deployment in 2016, with the first launch atop a Dnepr rocket from Dombarosky, Russia sometime in April 2016. Built by Iridium Communications Incorporated, this project to field a new and more robust constellation of communications satellites will most likely—like the first deployment of Iridium satellites by Motorola—take several years. The deorbit phase-out of the old system of 66 satellites will likewise take time. Unfortunately for backyard sat-spotters, the new generation of Iridium satellites probably won’t flare as brilliantly as their predecessors.

The International Space Station Heads into its Extended Life

Way back when construction was finished in 2009, word was the ISS would eventually be deorbited in 2016… but it looks like NASA will try to keep the station going now well into the 2020s. An unexpected increase in the FY2016 budget for NASA sees the ISS funded to the tune of five billion dollars, including money for SpaceX and Boeing to continue development on a crewed spacecraft as an alternative to the Russian Soyuz for access to the station. Astronaut Scott Kelly will also complete his ‘year in space’ on March 2nd, 2016, breaking the US human spaceflight duration record in the process.

OSIRIS REx Launches

NASA’s ambitious asteroid sample return mission also launches in 2016: The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource, Identification, Security, and Regolith EXplorer known as OSIRIS REx launches from Cape Canaveral in September 2016. The mission will rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2018. If all goes well, expect the sample return mission to arrive back in the vicinity of the Earth in September 2019.

A Solar Sail Launch in 2016?

Remember the excitement surrounding LightSail-A in early 2015? The full-fledged LightSail-1 demonstrator fielded by the Planetary Society is set to launch in April on the inaugural first flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy. Unlike LightSail-A, which operated briefly in low-Earth orbit before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, LightSail-1 will demonstrate true solar wind pressure sailing in a higher 500 mile orbit.

One more thing. A semi-depressing milestone comes to pass at the end of 2016, as we head towards a span of time where no astronauts have launched from U.S. soil equal to the gap between Apollo (The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1976) and the start of the U.S. Space Shuttle program with STS-1 in 1981. True, we’ve kept the human occupation of space ongoing aboard the International Space Station, but it looks like this record may be broken with room to spare — until SpaceX launches crew in late 2017.

See you in 2016!

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NASA Again Postpones Space Station Commercial Cargo Contract Awards, Boeing Out

Will NASA renew SpaceX and Orbital ATK as the favored contractors for the commercial cargo flights absolutely essential to keeping the International Space Station (ISS) amply stocked with science experiments and supplies through 2024 for the multinational crews now celebrating 15 years of continuous human occupation? Or will a trio of other American aerospace competitors […]

Weekly Space Hangout – April 26, 2015: Special Cosmoquest Hangoutathon Edition

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg ) Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer) Nancy Atkinson (UniverseToday.com / @Nancy_A) (…)Read the rest of Weekly Space Hangout – April 26, 2015: Special Cosmoquest Hangoutathon Edition (497 words) © Fraser for Universe Today, 2015. | Permalink | No comment | Post tags: ALMA, Antares, Asteroids, […]

Weekly Space Hangout – April 24, 2015: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg ) Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein) Alessondra Springmann (@sondy) Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com) This Week’s Stories: 25 years of Hubble Rosetta spots a jet form on 67P Japan to attempt lunar landing in 2018 (maybe!) Dark matter interactions […]

Weekly Space Hangout – April 24, 2015: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg ) Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein) Alessondra Springmann (@sondy) Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com) This Week’s Stories: 25 years of Hubble Rosetta spots a jet form on 67P Japan to attempt lunar landing in 2018 (maybe!) Dark matter interactions […]