Swiss Space Systems Conducts First Tests, Looks at Russian Engine

SOAR Space Plane / Credit Swiss Space Systems

One of Europe’s leading NewSpace companies, Swiss Space Systems recently completed a first milestone, conducting an initial round of “flight testing” key components at its Canadian test facility.

From its press release:

“These first test flights were done with the purpose of testing and validating avionics systems, drone systems, Guidance-Navigation-Control instruments and various sensors.

All system components were inserted into an avionics system container suspended by a local custom-manufactured flight support and release jig structure. The flight support and release jig structure was custom-manufactured by North Bay Machining CentreInc. and assembled at the Canadore College Aviation Campus by Canadore College faculty in collaboration with the S3 design team. The first phase of a drop-test flight campaign in North Bay included contributions from seven local companies, with all work completed and delivered on-time and on-budget.

The flight support and release jig construction was carried by a helicopter at a maximum altitude of 3,800 m /12,500 ft. to test system control and telemetry in-flight, which was connected and monitored in real-time with the ground station. It was also an opportunity for a delegation of S3 engineers to strengthen their collaboration with the supporting teams of Canadore College, North Bay Jack Garland Airport (YYB), and the City of North Bay, in preparation for the future drop-test flight campaign of a fully functional, but reduced-scale SOAR suborbital shuttle mock-up, scheduled to take place in the spring of 2015 from the same location.”

As Swiss Space Systems looks to a busy 2015, one critical decision made in 2014 may loom large. Recently officials from the company visited Russian engine manufacturer JSC Kuznetsov to evaluate the acquisition of a modified NK-39 rocket engine for the SOAR spaceplane.

Pascal Jaussi, founder & CEO of S3, with Nikolai Ivanovich Yakushin, CEO of Kuznetsov, posing in front of the SOAR future NK-39 engines Credit : JSC Kuznetsov

Pascal Jaussi, founder & CEO of S3, with Nikolai Ivanovich Yakushin, CEO of Kuznetsov, posing in front of the SOAR future NK-39 engines Credit : JSC Kuznetsov

From S3:

“An S3 delegation visited the Samara factories of JSC Kuznetsov, one of the Russian aerospace industry jewels, which will provide S3 with the NK-39 rocket engines used for the SOAR suborbital shuttle. They were able to appreciate firsthand the work accomplished since the start of the collaboration announced last February.

After the signature of a memorandum of understanding during the Sochi winter Olympics, the work on the propulsion systems of the suborbital shuttle SOAR of S3 and its partner JSC Kuznetsov is starting off on solid footing. An S3 delegation, including Pascal Jaussi, founder & CEO, and Benoit Deper, Research & Development Director, was welcomed in Samara for an official visit in one of the factories where Kuznetsov propulsion systems are produced. They had the opportunity to inspect the future engines to power the SOAR: the NK-39. This model will be modified in order to meet the specific requirements of the mission. “It is an important day for us to be able to see and touch our first rocket engine after this initial phase of collaboration. This makes our project more concrete and I look forward to pursuing this fruitful collaboration” outlined Pascal Jaussi.”

Model of SOAR with NK-39 Engine Credit: Swiss Space Systems

Model of SOAR with NK-39 Engine
Credit: Swiss Space Systems

Is history repeating itself here?  The NK-39 engine was intended as the 3rd stage engine for the failed Soviet N-1 booster. The same program which produced the first stage NK-33 engines, one of which just cost Orbital Sciences an Antares booster and Cygnus cargo vessel, and NASA an important ISS resupply run. Preliminary results of the ensuing investigation have focused on the AJ-26 turbo pump as the source of the failure.

While problems with the NK-33, reworked as the Aerojet AJ-26 do not necessarily translate to the NK-39, the October 28 Antares failure may be a major source of concern for S3, and a possible flaw in its innovative approach to small satellite launch.

Orbital Sciences was using the NK-33/AJ-26 engines in an expendable mode only, yet still suffered a flight loss in addition to two previous test stand failures. Compared to OSC’s brief test firing and then a “one and done” full first stage burn, Swiss Space Systems would presumably be using the NK-39 for multiple flights.

As one of a handful of companies pursuing partial launch vehicle re-usability, Swiss Space Systems is in position to make a unique and meaningful contribution to the RLV movement. Hopefully it is not one which will be derailed by reliance on 40 year old engines.

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