Space Image

Vulcan Centaur’s Cert-2 Mission to Launch Inert Payload, Sierra Space Dream Chaser Demo Delayed

In a strategic shift, United Launch Alliance (ULA) will proceed with an inert payload and instrumentation on its second Vulcan Centaur mission, after determining that Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser will not be ready for a launch this fall.

  • More details coming soon...
Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Sun Jun 30 2024Written by Zac Aubert

In a strategic shift, United Launch Alliance (ULA) will proceed with an inert payload and instrumentation on its second Vulcan Centaur mission, after determining that Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser will not be ready for a launch this fall.

At a media briefing on June 26, Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, announced that the upcoming Cert-2 mission, now scheduled for September, will feature an inert payload. This payload was initially built as a contingency in case the payload for the first Vulcan launch, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, faced delays. This inert payload will replace Dream Chaser, a cargo spaceplane intended for its inaugural flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

“We have been informed by Sierra Space that they feel that they have significant risk towards making the mid-year flight date previously planned for Cert-2...They told us they will step aside in order to support our critical national security space missions that will come afterwards.” - Tory Bruno, Chief Executive of ULA

The Cert-2 mission is crucial for ULA as it is the second of two launches required for the Space Force to certify the Vulcan rocket for national security payloads. ULA aims to complete two such missions, USSF-106 and USSF-87, before the year’s end.

The inert payload will be launched into low Earth orbit and remain attached to the upper stage while ULA conducts “experiments and demonstrations” of technologies being considered for the Centaur.

“Then we’ll conduct some maneuvers post the basic mission just to help us better understand the full capabilities of the Centaur V and to measure some of its attributes,” - Tory Bruno, Chief Executive of ULA

The Centaur will then be sent to a final disposal orbit in compliance with U.S. government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.

This revised plan aligns with statements from Pentagon officials in May, indicating they might permit ULA to launch an inert payload if Dream Chaser was not ready by year-end, as there were no other commercial payloads available to substitute Dream Chaser for the September launch.

While Bruno did not provide a precise timeline for certification, he expressed confidence in completing it in time for the two Space Force missions this year. The Space Force has already reviewed data from the Cert-1 launch in January and preparations are underway for Cert-2.

“It’s sort of pre-staged and ready to go...It will turn pretty quickly, in plenty of time to fly two more times this year.” - Tory Bruno, Chief Executive of ULA

Hardware for both the Cert-2 launch and the subsequent Space Force missions are either ready or nearing completion. The Vulcan rocket for Cert-2 arrived at Cape Canaveral on June 23, with the next two rockets scheduled for delivery in August and shortly thereafter.

ULA has received all the BE-4 engines from Blue Origin necessary for this year's Vulcan launches.

“Blue has been the long pole previously because it took them just a little bit longer to get this new, methane-based, very large rocket motor through development, but it is through and they are ramping up their factory right now,” - Tory Bruno, Chief Executive of ULA

The shift by ULA will delay Dream Chaser’s debut. Sierra Space delivered the first Dream Chaser vehicle, named Tenacity, to the Kennedy Space Center in May for final testing and work on its thermal protection system. Tenacity arrived at KSC following a series of shock, vibration, and thermal vacuum tests at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio.

“As a defense-tech prime, we understand how important ULA’s Cert-2 mission is to the criticality of national security and our launch partner’s schedule. We are working closely with ULA to identify the next available launch date...on track to fly by the end of 2024.” - Sierra Space

The mission could be pushed to 2025 due to launch scheduling. With Vulcan slated for two national security missions by year-end, the next Vulcan launch is planned for late in the first quarter of 2025, though Bruno did not specify the payload for that mission.

ULA, having completed three launches this year, is aiming for 20 launches in 2025, comprising both Atlas and Vulcan vehicles. All Atlas rockets will be ready by year-end, while the Vulcans will be “ahead of need” for next year’s missions.

“All I’ll need, knock on wood, is for the spacecraft to show up on time,” - Tory Bruno, Chief Executive of ULA