Swiss Space Systems Introduces Partially Reusable Small Satellite Launcher

Swiss space Systems

Swiss Space Systems

Swiss Space Systems  (S3),  entered the rapidly growing field of air-launched orbital delivery systems yesterday, with the official unveiling of a three stage architecture aimed at placing up to 250 kg small satellites into space.  The first stage launch platform  is an Airbus A-300 jet aircraft certified for zero-G, parabolic flights. In a departure from other concepts currently under development, most notably Virgin Galactic’s Launcher One, the second stage, an unmanned spaceplane, would be ferried to its launch position on top of the carrier aircraft.  After separation, the reusable spaceplane would rocket to 80 km, at which point the expendable upper stage would be released to carry the payload to orbit.

There are a number of interesting aspects to the venture,  which appears to have significant backing with a budget of 250 million Swiss Francs. ($263 m US).   First, following a typical European model, S3 is a holding company comprised of a number of  industrial interests, notably Dassault, the French aircraft manufacturer  which was the losing bidder in the cancelled Hermes spaceplane project from a number of years ago. Not surprisingly, the design of the spaceplane bears a strong resemblance to Hermes, which S3 cites, along with the American X-38 as reducing the development risk to manageable levels.  Given the history, as well as the relative size and complexity of the spaceplane, it is seems likely that S3 is eying eventual manned suborbital flights, although this possibility is  not addressed in any of the promotional literature.

And then there is the price.  The estimated launch price, $10 million, almost $20,000 per pound, while a good bit less than that offered by Orbital Sciences and the Pegasus, which has climbed to absurd levels, is still quite high when measured on that basis. It is however, right on target with the numbers suggested for Launcher One.  The question then, is how much room there is in the intended national and  institutional markets for this capacity.

SpaceWorks  recently released a study showing an exploding market for  nano/micro satellites ranging between 1 and 50 KG,  which suggests that best opportunity for providers such as S3 may be in aggregating launches of smaller satellites in this category, as opposed to larger, dedicated missions.

On the other hand, the S3 venture is not merely European, with both Malaysia and Morocco intending to operate spaceports to host the launch system,  which is planning to begin operations from a new spaceport in Payerne, Switzerland with the first test flights in 2017.  “Regional” spaceports, as well as the overall Swiss reputation for neutrality, might prove an advantage in securing business from smaller national governments wanting to advance their own domestic, scientific and technical capabilities, and who are easily capable of booking dedicated launches for this purpose.

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