SOAR mini-shuttle

An ambitious Swiss company has come up with a novel and incredibly economic concept to launch satellites into orbit by 2017.

Written by Ben Biggs

S3 (otherwise known as Swiss Space Systems) is based in the western part of Switzerland and was founded in 2012 by military pilot and mechanical engineer Pascal Jaussi. Its motto is ‘Space for all’ and one of its ambitious goals is to open a space port by the year 2015 then start test-launching by 2017. S3 is aiming to put small satellites of up to 250 kilograms (551 pounds) into a standard satellite orbit in conjunction with various partners that include the European Space Agency. But the cool bit isn’t what S3 plans to do, it’s how this private company is going to do it.

Using a zero-g certified Airbus A300, an unmanned mini-shuttle will be piggy-backed to an altitude of around 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) where it will separate from its carrier. Then, once its parent vehicle is at a safe distance, the mini-shuttle will ignite its kerosene and liquid oxygen rockets to boost itself to a target altitude of 80 kilometres (50 miles) above the Earth.

Once it has reached its desired altitude, the mini-shuttle will initiate the third stage of the launch, in which it will open its cargo bay doors and launch the satellite. The satellite is equipped with a rocket engine of its own and can fly the rest of the way to the 700-kilometre (434-mile) altitude orbit, while the mini-shuttle will glide back to Earth after its suborbital flight.

The development costs for the SOAR mini-shuttle are estimated at around 200 million Swiss Francs ($211 million/£140 million) with another 50 million Swiss Francs ($53 million/£35 million) paying for the construction of the space port.

«A big asset of the project is our network of international partners, who all support S3», Pascal Jaussi told All About Space, «This enables us to save time and money on research and development.» Each launch has an estimated cost of 10 million Swiss Francs ($10.5 million/£6.9 million): not exactly peanuts but it’s still four times cheaper than current costs, making the launch of satellites much more accessible. No fuel is required for the landing of the mini-shuttle and there are few disposable flight components, so unlike previous shuttle launch technology, the main elements of the mini-shuttle system can be reused for the next launch, only the satellite launcher is not reuseable.

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