KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., Nov. 19 (UPI) -- Sierra Nevada Corp.'s new disposable space cargo container has arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to prepare for taking supplies to the International Space Station.
The cargo unit is to be attached to the back of the company's Dream Chaser spaceplane, still under development, and carry those supplies starting in fall 2021.
Like a miniature space shuttle, Dream Chaser would be launched on a rocket, travel to the space station and eventually return to earth under its own power. A Dream Chaser prototype has been tested by dropping it from an airplane, but it has yet to launch as intended on a rocket sent into space.
The cargo container was named Shooting Star because it is designed to detach and burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere. With the cargo unit attached, Sierra Nevada would be able to carry 12,000 pounds of equipment and supplies, more than existing cargo spacecraft.
Sierra Nevada, based near Reno, Nev., has contract agreements for an eventual $1.3 billion to develop the Dream Chaser system, according to a 2018 report from NASA's Office of Inspector General.
In comparison, the Russian Progress cargo ship carries 3,748 pounds, according to NASA, while Northrop Grumman says its Cygnus spacecraft carries up to 8,267 pounds. SpaceX's Cargo Dragon capsule capacity is 7,291 pounds, while the Crew Dragon still under development has a total capacity of more than 13,000 pounds.
On its return to Earth, the cargo module is to be released with disposable trash from the station, said Steve Lindsey, former NASA astronaut and the company's senior vice president of Space Exploration.
The module literally will become a shooting star high over the Pacific Ocean -- similar to what happened to the space shuttle's main fuel tank after launch. It simply burned up in the extreme friction heat of re-entering the atmosphere.
"From space ... instead of seeing shooting stars above, you're actually looking down at them. ... It's spectacular," Lindsey said.
He said the bell-shaped cargo module is the "unsung hero" of Sierra Nevada's system because of its unique shape and ability to strap external space station equipment units to the outside of it. The spaceplane, cargo module and the strapped-on equipment would be housed underneath a rocket nose cone for launch.
Sierra Nevada has reserved six trips with launch provider United Launch Alliance on its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is being developed.
Lindsey said reusability of Dream Chaser, coupled with the disposable nature of Shooting Star, makes the system exactly what NASA needs for the space station.
Shooting Star is a 15-foot attachment to Dream Chaser, about half the length of the plane.
Sierra Nevada says the entire system was designed to easily convert to carry humans, and also could be used for trips to the planned lunar Gateway for Artemis moon missions. The company says it has conceptualized a free-flying version that can act as a satellite.