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Swiss shuttle will be new satellite launcher

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Apr 5, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—It is fair to say that Switzerland is not the first country that springs to mind for a launch site. But a new company plans to build a spaceport to offer cheap access to orbit for small satellites.

A mini shuttle, based on a previous design called Hermes that was designed in Europe, is being developed for unmanned suborbital flights by Swiss Space Systems.

Unlike NASA, the aerospace newcomers, known as S3 for short, won’t be launching their shuttles using rockets. Instead they will be carried piggyback by a European aircraft, the Airbus A300, to a height of 10,000 metres and launched from there.

This will allow them to carry satellites weighing up to 250 kg to the edge of space and pop them into orbit from there. The shuttle will be an unmanned drone, soaring to a height of 80km from where an upper stage will propel its payload into orbit.

The shuttle will be reusable, gliding to its home airport where maintenance teams will get it ready for its next flight. S3 claims their flights will be safe and efficient and cut launch costs to around $10 million, a quarter of their present rate.

By using basic technology developed for Hermes and a similar mini-shuttle, the X-38, which was cancelled by NASA in 2002, S3 expects to save money on research and have its own spaceship ready for launch in 2017.

Airbus carrying shuttle

An artist's impression of the Airbus A300 carrying S3's shuttle. Credit: Swiss Space Systems

They estimate the cost of development at around 250 million Swiss francs ($260 million), compared to several billion francs if they had to start from scratch. Launch site infrastructure will also be much cheaper to set up and maintain.

Founder and CEO of S3, Pascal Jaussi, said: “Our launch programme benefits from the input of technologies previously developed and certified through original partnerships between major players in the aerospace sector such as the European Space Agency (ESA), Dassault Aviation, the Von Karman Institute and Sonaca.”

S3 says its shuttle launches will be safer than rockets for customers because the launch can be aborted at any stage during flight and the satellites returned to Earth.

In theory, launch flights can begin from any airport where the Airbus A300 is able to take off and land. But S3 has chosen the Swiss airport of Payerne as its initial spaceport, claiming that Switzerland’s famous neutrality, security and discretion are all positives in its favour. Other spaceports could follow in countries such as Malaysia and Morocco which have already offered partnership in the enterprise.

S3 is not the only commercial company to offer an air-launch service for satellites. Virgin Galactic will operate the same facility alongside its suborbital passenger flights and Stratolaunch Systems is building a scaled-up version of Virgin's White Knight/SpaceShipTwo configuration too.

S3 upper stage

How S3's upper stage will look reaching orbit. Credit: Swiss Space Systems