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Sierra Space prepares to launch the Dream Chaser spaceplane

The dream began over a decade ago. This is how 3D printing is helping to make it a reality

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Sierra Space, a leading commercial space company, successfully completed a rigorous environmental test suite on the revolutionary Dream Chaser spaceplane, Tenacity, at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio.

As the first Dream Chaser moves toward orbital operations, Sierra Space and NASA test team members are preparing the vehicle, along with its Shooting Star cargo companion, for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final testing and integration ahead of its inaugural launch later this year.

“Successful completion of an incredibly rigorous environmental testing campaign in close partnership with NASA is a significant milestone and puts Dream Chaser on track for operations later this year,” said Sierra Space CEO, Tom Vice. “This is the year that we transition from rigorous research and development to regular orbital operations and – in doing so – transform the way we connect space and Earth.”

Over the past several months, Dream Chaser and Shooting Star have undergone intense shock, vibration, and thermal vacuum testing at the sprawling Armstrong Test Facility.

Sierra Space prepares to launch the Dream Chaser spaceplane. This is how 3D printing is helping to make it a reality
Sierra Space successfully tests the new 5,500 lbf Hypergolic Rocket Engine capable of continuous throttling

In November 2023, the company reported it had partnered with Agile Space Industries, an in-space propulsion solution provider leveraging additive manufacturing, to design, develop, manufacture, and test a hydrazine-rich preburner for their VRM5500-H engine. This was done on a timeline of only 19 weeks and this is likely the first time a hydrazine-rich preburner has been developed or used in an engine. The first prototype unit that was produced demonstrated stable operation across a 6:1 throttle range with high combustion efficiency.

The company also uses FDM additive manufacturing to produce tools that are necessary to manufacture the ceramic tiles that protect the vehicle on re-entry. “We have to produce these chucks for basically every tile, we have thousands of them on this vehicle,” said Bob Gjestvang a Lead Manufacturing Engineer for the Thermal Protection & Propulsion Group at Sierra Space. “In the analysis, we did it very quickly and built a case for using 3D printing to do these chucks. We’re looking at tens of thousands of hours saved.”

In December 2023, the test teams conducted shock tests with Sierra Space’s launch partner United Launch Alliance (ULA), using the flight separation system that will deploy the spacecraft from the upper stage of ULA’s second Vulcan Centaur rocket.

The two vehicles were then stacked in launch configuration on the world’s most powerful spacecraft shaker table inside the test center’s Mechanical Vibration Facility. Sine vibration testing – conducted over five weeks – simulated the intense conditions and environment of a launch on a Vulcan Centaur rocket. See video here. After vibe testing concluded, the teams conducted another shock test – this time with the flight separation system between Dream Chaser and Shooting Star – to simulate the dynamic environment during the separation of the two vehicles before de-orbit and re-entry.

Next, the Sierra Space and NASA test teams transported the vehicles to the In-Space Propulsion Facility at Armstrong for thermal vacuum or “T-VAC” testing. Temperatures in space can range from the extremely cold – hundreds of degrees below freezing – to several hundred degrees Fahrenheit due to radiation from the sun. TVAC testing is a realistic thermal simulation of the flight environment and critical to ensuring mission success. For more than five weeks, Dream Chaser and Shooting Star were subjected to multiple cold-hot cycles in a vacuum environment, between -150F to +250F, with teams conducting functional tests at temperature plateaus to verify system performance. Sierra Space is releasing some stunning new imagery with this announcement, and you can download it here.

Dream Chaser and Shooting Star will soon be transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and staged inside the storied Space Systems Processing Facility (SSPF) – originally built to be the last stop for components of the International Space Station – for final integration and testing. The final environmental tests – acoustic testing and electromagnetic interference and compatibility testing – will be performed onsite inside the SSPF. Remaining work on the thermal protection system will also be completed there.

Dream Chaser Tenacity, the first in a fleet of spaceplanes, remains on track for a 2024 launch on the first of seven missions to resupply the International Space Station for NASA under a Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2) contract. A second spaceplane, named Reverence, is in production in Sierra Space’s Louisville, CO, factory.

Armstrong Test Facility is part of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Located on 6,400 acres in Sandusky, Ohio, it is home to some of the world’s largest and most capable space simulation test facilities, where ground tests are conducted for the U.S. and international space and aeronautics communities.


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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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