The United Nations will launch its first-ever space mission aboard Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane in 2021. The news was announced yesterday at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.
"The possibilities are endless."
The goal of the mission is to give developing nations that don’t have their own space programs the chance to fly payloads in microgravity. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is accepting proposals "on anything from developing materials that resist corrosion in space to studying climate change and food security," Motherboard reports. Developing countries get first dibs, but the mission is open to all UN member states. The payloads will be selected by UNOOSA in 2018 and will be launched into low Earth orbit — up to about 1,200 miles above Earth — in 2021.
"One of UNOOSA's core responsibilities is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space," Simonetta Di Pippo, director of UNOOSA, said in a statement. "I am proud to say that one of the ways UNOOSA will achieve this, in cooperation with our partner Sierra Nevada Corporation, is by dedicating an entire microgravity mission to United Nations Member States, many of which do not have the infrastructure or financial backing to have a standalone space programme."
The chance to fly payloads in microgravity
The Dream Chaser is a 30-foot-long reusable spacecraft with small wings designed to land gently on runway. The company that makes the Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada Corporation, was recently awarded a NASA contract along with Orbital ATK and SpaceX to resupply the International Space Station between 2019 and 2024. The contract revitalized the company. A previous version of the Dream Chaser designed to ferry astronauts to the ISS was rejected by NASA, which instead chose Boeing and SpaceX for the job. After that, Sierra Nevada had to lay off "dozens of employees," according to The Washington Post.
The UNOOSA is currently looking for sponsors to fund the mission. The countries that send the payloads to space will also be asked to cover some of the costs, based on how much they can afford, according to a UNOOSA press release.
The ultimate goal of the UN mission is to make space — a valuable environment for science experiments — more affordable to nations that might not otherwise have access to it. "The possibilities are endless," said Di Pippo.