If you want to launch a satellite in the usual way – on top of a rocket – it will typically cost you at least US$50,000,000. Newly-inaugurated aerospace firm Swiss Space Systems (S3), however, claims that it will be able to put your small satellite into orbit for about 10.6 million bucks. Why so cheap? S3 is planning on flying satellites into space, using an airliner and an unmanned shuttle.
The launch system would incorporate an Airbus A300, an existing commercial aircraft that’s already certified for zero gravity flights. Mounted on the back of the A300 would be the shuttle, and contained within it would be a satellite weighing no more than 250 kilograms (551 lbs).
The airliner would take off from a designated spaceport, and release the shuttle at an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,808 feet). The shuttle would then start its engines and climb up to 80 kilometers (50 miles), at which point the satellite would be launched from its cargo bay. From there, the satellite’s upper stage engine would take it into orbit, while the shuttle would glide back down to the spaceport for reuse.
According to S3, not only would its system require considerably less fuel than conventional rocket launches, but also – if need be – the launch could be called off at any point, with the shuttle returning to earth still carrying its payload. Additionally, because the A300 could take off from any runway capable of accommodating it, multiple spaceports could be established in a variety of locations around the world. This means that clients wouldn’t need to transport their satellites great distances in order to have them launched.
The first of these spaceports is planned to open in the Swiss city of Payerne by 2015, with the first test launches scheduled to take place by the end of 2017. Additional ports are planned for Malaysia and Morocco, with other locations pending.
Virgin Galactic is said to be working on a similar system, in which satellites would be flown to a launch altitude aboard the company’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. Stratolaunch Systems also has something in the works, although it will require the construction of the largest aircraft ever flown.