Swiss Space System May Build Rocket Plane, Spaceport in Europe

S3 unmanned shuttle's flight plan (Credits: Swiss Space System)

S3 unmanned shuttle’s flight plan (Credits: Swiss Space System).

Swiss Space System (S3) has announced a plan to build an unmanned rocket plane by 2017 to launch satellites into orbit.

“S3 aims to develop, build, certify and operate suborbital space shuttles dedicated to launching small satellites, enabling space access to be made more democratic thanks to an original system with launching costs up to four times less than at present,” announced the company. “The first test launches will be carried out by the end of 2017.”

The unmanned suborbital shuttle would be launched from the back of a Zero-G certified Airbus A300 to carry satellites to orbit, thereby serving as a commercial satellite launch platform.  A similar concept has been developed by Orbital Science Corporation with Pegasus, using an expendable rocket instead of a reusable vehicle. S3’s schedule is quite tight since a mock up of the unmanned vehicle is expected to be ready by 2014 and the opening of a commercial spaceport in Payerne, Switzerland, is set for 2015. The spacecraft prototype is planned to be built by 2016 and, if the schedule will be respected, the company will start commercial satellite launches in 2018.

The rocket plane is going to be launched from 10 kilometers, firing its liquid engine to an altitude of 80 kilometers; it will not reach space, commonly taken to begin at 100 km. After the opening of the shuttle’s cargo bay, the satellite will be propelled into space by a rocket engine stage, able to carry 250 kilograms to an altitude of 700 kilometers. The unmanned vehicle will then glide back to the spaceport. An S3 official told that the system will be able to launch different types of small spacecraft during a single mission. The total investment is estimated to be about $264 million, launch system and spaceport included.

S3 has teamed up with several industry partners for the project, including Dassault Aviation providing the aviation system, SAS with the software, Deimos with navigation, control and mission analysis, Sonaca the structures, and Meggit the sensors. Moreover, the Swiss watch manufacturer Breitlingis is the main sponsor of the enterprise.

Although S3 is planning to invest $53 million in the development of a spaceport in Payerne, where the company is located, the main issue of having a spaceport in Europe is the high density of population. Considering Switzerland’s geographical position, the lack of safe zones like oceans or deserts in case of rocket failure also has to be considered.  Considering these difficulties, the Swiss firm has at the same time secured the operation of its future launch system from Spaceport Malaysia.

Below, VEHRA’s concept by Dassault on which the S3 launching system concept is based on (Courtesy of Dassault Aviation).




One Response

  1. Robert Clark

    The space industry still does not appreciate the lesson of the SpaceX experience. SpaceX was able to develop a 10,000 kg launcher in the Falcon 9 for only $300 million as *privately financed*. Yet Swiss Space Systems is planning to spend nearly that for just a 250 kg launcher. Clearly then they must be using the usual governmental cost estimation models. By following the SpaceX model they could cut 90% from their development cost.
    Note this also means Europe could develop its own manned flight capable launcher for only a few hundred million dollars by following the SpaceX model of *private financing*.

    Bob Clark

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