Nasa has unveiled the Dream Chaser, a space plane that can take off, deliver crew and goods in low-Earth orbit like at the International Space Station (ISS) and return back, landing on a runway.
Nasa has said that the Dream Chaser would be the next generation reusable space vehicle which will work as, "cargo-carrying aerospace workhorses". This set of Space Utility Vehicles (SUV) can be reused 15 or more times, which is greater than any other operational space vehicle as of now, says Nasa.
Dream Chasers, according to Nasa, will only be one-quarter the size of the now retired space shuttles, but will still be able to transport up to seven crew members at one go.
Called the HL (Horizontal Landing) vehicles, Dream Chasers are categorised into two types: Dream Chaser Cargo System that is designed to carry equipment and goods, and Dream Chaser Space System for carrying crew. The space agency says a flexible design in terms of operations that include satellite servicing, remote sensing and even in space trash cleanup, are also possible.
The design of the Dream Chaser is inspired by the upward flexing pectoral fins of the manta ray and the plane has "rudimentary wings". According to Nasa, this space plane generates lift as it travels through the atmosphere from having more air pressure on the bottom than the top of its chubby, cigar shaped fuselage.
However, flying a plane like this is not a new idea for Nasa. A number of piloted aircraft were also created in the 1960's under the leadership of H. Dale Reed, an engineer at Nasa, Langley. Dubbed the Northrop HL-10, which ended up being one of five "heavyweight" body designs that were actually flown by Nasa at the Armstrong Research Center. The test, according to Nasa, was designed to demonstrate the manoeuvrability and ability of a wingless aircraft to be controlled by a pilot. This research, they say, is what led to the creation of the space shuttle program.
According to reports, SNC is one of three private space companies that have been given the contract to carry cargo from Earth to the ISS from 2019 to 2024 and they are now actively making use of Nasa facilities to test and run experiments on the design of the Dream Chaser.
Flight tests for the wingless Dream Chaser aircraft are reportedly going on and will continue until the end of the year.