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Dream Chaser captive-carry test
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser prototype space plane is suspended beneath a helicopter during a captive-carry flight test at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (SNC via Facebook Live)

Sierra Nevada Corp.’s prototype Dream Chaser space plane, also known as the “mini-space shuttle,” successfully went through its first in-the-air test in four years today at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California’s Mojave Desert.

The uncrewed Dream Chaser stayed suspended beneath a Columbia 234-UT helicopter throughout today’s 101-minute flight.

The point of the captive-carry test was to collect data about the aerodynamics of the winged vehicle as well as the performance of Dream Chaser’s guidance and navigation control software.

“I’m sure the team is going to learn new things today, because we have all-new avionics on board,” Steve Lindsey, senior director and co-program manager of space exploration systems for SNC Space Systems, said in advance of the test during a Facebook Live video session.

Afterward, Lee Archambault, SNC’s director of flight operations for the Dream Chaser program, said his team was “very pleased” with the results of the test.

“Everything we have seen points to a successful test with useful data for the next round of testing,” he said in a news release.

Dream Chaser is designed to be launched atop an expendable rocket such as United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, to carry cargo to the International Space Station. At the end of each space mission, the craft would descend to an airplane-style runway landing.

The craft’s design is based on a lifting-body concept that NASA drew up in the 1990s. It measures 30 feet from nose to tail, which is about a quarter of the space shuttle’s length.

SNC originally proposed the Dream Chaser as a means of transporting astronauts to and from the space station, but it lost out to SpaceX and Boeing in the commercial crew program.

Instead, NASA cleared SNC to join SpaceX and Orbital ATK in the next phase of the space station cargo resupply program, which is set for the 2019-2024 time frame.

For the past few months, SNC’s Dream Chaser engineering test article has been undergoing ground checks at NASA Armstrong. A key test came earlier this month, when a truck towed the craft around Armstrong’s runway at Edwards Air Force Base at speeds of up to 60 mph.

Such tow tests validated the performance of the Dream Chaser’s nose skid, brakes, tires and other systems.

If the next captive-carry test goes well, that will set the stage later this year for a test that involves dropping the engineering test article from a helicopter and letting it glide to an autonomous landing on the runway.

That was the kind of test that ended in a setback for the Dream Chaser in 2013. The craft made a successful descent, but it sustained damage when the left landing gear failed to deploy. A more advanced type of landing gear is being used for the current round of prototype testing.

SNC’s schedule calls for an Atlas 5 to send the first space-capable Dream Chaser into orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in 2020.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is headquartered in Nevada, but its space systems group is based in Louisville, Colo.

This is an updated version of a report first published on Aug. 29.

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