Switzerland seems an unlikely hotbed of aerospace innovation, but after the Solar Impulse sun-powered round-the-world aircraft here comes Swiss Space Systems (S3) with its reusable suborbital smallsat launch system.
S3 has assembled a team of industrial partners, technical advisers and corporate sponsors and CHF250 million ($265 million) to get to the first test flight of its mothership-and-shuttle combination in 2017, from Payerne in Switzerland.
Founded by Pascal Jaussi, whose ambition is to "democratize" access to space, S3 aims cut the cost of launching smallsats by a factor of four, to CHF10 million to carry a 250kg payload to a 700km orbital altitude.
The first stage will be an Airbus A300, cheap and routine to operate and certified to operate from commercial airports and fly in civil airspace. On its back, it will carry an unmanned shuttle. This will be released at 10,000m (33,000ft) to ignite its rocket engines and climb to 80,000m (80km: 262,500ft), where it will deploy a small expendable upper stage that will continue into orbit to dispense its payload of smallsats.
The A300 will return to base, as will the unmanned shuttle, which will glide unpowered back to a runway landing to be maintained and turned around for the next flight. S3 intends to build its first spaceport at Payerne, a CHF50 million venture planned for completion in 2015. Spaceports would also be built in other countries and Spaceport Malaysia, under development in Malacca by the state of Selangor, is the first to sign an MoU with S3.
Jaussi says the thinking may be novel, but the technology is not. The A300 is certified for the altitudes and parabolic zero-g trajectories needed to launch the shuttle. The internals of the lifting-body shuttle, meanwhile, are based on Dassault's Hermes spaceplane design for ESA and the X-38 for NASA. The external structure will be designed by Belgium's Sonaca.
In addition to Dassault and Sonaca, S3's industrial partners include Spanish satellite manufacturer Deimos Space, Belgian ground-segment developer Space Applications Services and aerospace supplier Meggitt. Breitling is the sponsor and technical advisers are ESA, Belgium's von Karman Institute, France's University Catholic de Louvain, Stanford University's Aerospace Design Lab in the US, and the Swiss Space Center at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL).
Plans call for a flight of a mockup shuttle in 2014, inauguration of the Payerne spaceport in 2015, shuttle assembly in 2016 and first test flights of the shuttle with satellite payloads in 2017. S3 says a "large part" of the CHF250 million cost to get to those test launches is "already covered by private investors".