WASHINGTON — Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) Space Systems added the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to the expanding stable of international space agencies exploring mission concepts for the Louisville, Colorado-based company’s Dream Chaser lifting-body spacecraft, SNC announced July 23. 

Under the cooperative understanding, the two sides will collaborate on mission concepts and potential applications of Japanese technologies for Dream Chaser, SNC said in a press release. In addition, JAXA and SNC will explore the possibility of launching and landing the spacecraft in Japan, the release said.

SNC is developing Dream Chaser, which the company describes as “the only multi-mission space utility vehicle in the world,” under a funded cooperative agreement with NASA as a possible means of transporting astronauts to and from the international space station. The vehicle is designed to launch atop an expendable rocket and, after re-entry, glide back to Earth for a runway landing. 

SNC signed similar Dream Chaser agreements with the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center. The agreement with the 20-member ESA called for a yearlong study to examine the use of European hardware to reduce SNC’s development costs. The German pact, completed in November, studied whether Dream Chaser could be adapted for satellite launches. 

The agreement with JAXA “represents an important next step in SNC providing global transportation access to low Earth-orbit” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC Space Systems, wrote in an email to SpaceNews. 

Sirangelo suggested that access to Dream Chaser could help incentivize Japan to continue its participation in the space station program through 2024, the date to which the White House has proposed extending operations. Japan is currently onboard through 2020. 

Dream Chaser garnered the smallest of the three awards NASA parceled out in 2012 under the current phase its commercial crew program, which aims to replace the retired space shuttle’s crew-carrying capacity by 2017.

Counting the activation of some of the optional milestones in its Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities Space Act Agreement, SNC is expected to receive $212.5 million from NASA to work on Dream Chaser through March 31, 2015. The company has so far received about 92 percent of the total, according to a separate July 22 press release. 

Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, got roughly twice as much money as SNC under the current phase of the commercial crew program. 

All three companies are vying for awards in the fourth and final phase of the program, under which NASA is expected to help carry at least two concepts through full-scale development and an initial crewed round trip to station. Those contracts are expected to be awarded around August.

SNC plans to stage an uncrewed Dream Chaser flight to orbit in 2016 whether or not it wins any more funding from NASA, Sirangelo has said. The spacecraft is slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...