The United Nations Will Launch Its First Space Mission In 2021

To open space up to less wealthy countries.

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Sep 28 2016, 5:21pm

Artist's rendering of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane. Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Considering that the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has been around for over half a century, it might seem a bit strange that the organization has never launched its own space mission. This is finally slated to change in 2021, when the UN plans to send a spacecraft into orbit.

As detailed for a small crowd at the International Astronautical Congress yesterday, the goal of the 2021 UN mission is to make space accessible to developing member states that lack the resources to develop a standalone, national space program.

"One of UNOOSA's core responsibilities is to promote cooperation and the peaceful uses of outer space, but our work is about more than that," said Simonetta Di Pippo, the director of UNOOSA. "We have the vision of bringing the benefits of space to humankind, and that means helping developing countries access space technologies and their benefits."

"We have the vision of bringing the benefits of space to humankind."

Yesterday's announcement comes on the heels of a memorandum of understanding signed last June by the UNOOSA and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace company specializing in deploying orbital payloads, such as microsatellites. Considering that UNOOSA is responsible for overseeing the peaceful use of outer space, its partnership with Sierra Nevada makes sense: the corporation's relationship with the US military is much less robust than other American aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and instead it directs most of its efforts to commercial ventures.

The mission will make use of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane, a reusable spacecraft that looks like a scaled-down version of NASA's space shuttles, and can be used to transport both crew and cargo to orbit. The Dream Chaser is still under development by Sierra Nevada, but the company expects to resume test flights in December and begin shuttling cargo to the International Space Station in 2019.

Mark Sirangelo and Simonetta Di Pippo announce the UN space mission at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

UNOOSA will begin accepting proposals for mission payloads later this year. The program is open to all UN member states, but priority will be given to those without the national resources to develop a space program on their own. According to Di Pippo, UNOOSA is looking for proposals on anything from developing materials that resist corrosion in space to studying climate change and food security.

"While these experiments may seem small to us, if you go to these countries you realize this is perhaps one of the biggest things they've ever done," said Mark Sirangelo, the corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems. "The young researchers that will be working on this [mission] all around the world will be able to say that they are part of the space community."

The decisions on which payloads will fly on the UN's Dream Chaser mission will be made sometime in 2018 in order to give countries time to develop their projects and make sure they can be integrated with the Dream Chaser space plane. If countries lack the scientific expertise to develop their own payloads, UNOOSA has offered technical support in the development process.

The first mission carrying the payloads is expected to launch in 2021 and will be in orbit for 14 days. The exact launch site has yet to be determined, however the Dream Chaser space plane is capable of landing at any airport capable of hosting large commercial planes. Furthermore, because this is a UN initiative, this presents the opportunity to launch and land the Dream Chaser in any UN member country that is receptive to the program.

In the meantime, UNOOSA and Sierra Nevada are looking to fund the mission in a variety of ways. Sierra Nevada has already built the Dream Chaser space plane to service NASA missions and commercial interests, so the countries whose payloads are sent to space won't bear the burden of launch vehicle development costs.

"Space science helps us solve issues that are collective in their nature and can lead us to solutions that go beyond borders."

Instead they will be responsible for the development of their payload and the cost of hosting their payload on the craft. The total cost of the Dream Chaser mission has yet to be determined and will depend on the nature of the payloads being sent to orbit. UNOOSA is hoping that companies, organizations and established spacefaring nation states will be interested in helping sponsor the cost of deploying these payloads.

"In a few short years this UN space mission will provide member states with the ability to access space in a cost-effective and collaborative manner," said Di Pippo. "Space science helps us solve issues that are collective in their nature and can lead us to solutions that go beyond borders. All of us will benefit from this mission."

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