Swiss company aims to fly satellites into space


March 15, 2013

S3's planned satellite-carrying shuttle, being carried itself on an Airbus A300

S3's planned satellite-carrying shuttle, being carried itself on an Airbus A300

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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.

Source: Swiss Space Systems via Daily Mail

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

So if the control of the shuttle isn't perfect it will hit the fuselage, vertical stabilizer, or horizontal stabilizer? Remember how the SR-71 crashed releasing the drone and it didn't have a vertical stabilizer in the center or a horizontal stabilizer. This is profoundly stupid as white knight 2, stratolaunch, and other concepts do the same thing dropping the vehicle and rocket from the Bottom..... Remember the B-52 dropping the X-1 and x-15s. That was way ahead of this....

Ian Mitko

re; Kiwibird

The additional stabilizers on the shuttle transport 747 were added in case of a mishap damaging vertical stabilizer during the Enterprise test flights in which the tale was never damaged.


I like it but I think you could get more altitude out of the mothership. However the fact the A300 is already certified for zero gravity parabolic flights suggests that they won't be flying straight and level when launching the shuttle.

re; Mitko Ian

NASA launched the Space Shuttle Enterprise off the back of a 747 repeatedly without incident. Also the cost of designing, building, and certifying a plane so the shuttle could be unnecessarily dropped from underneath would be staggering.


I've known for years that this makes so much more sense than shooting a rocket directly from the ground, but apparently it's taken this long to realize that.

Joel Detrow

It needs a different design and be dropped.

Gildas Dubois

Mike I should have added that the SR-71 tried to launch the drone at speeds over Mock 2. The shock waves bounced the drone around like a rock in a clothes dryer until it knocked the tails of the mothership. Last time I looked the A300 is a subsonic airplane.


This is an improvement over Virgin's design. My only question is can White Knight II or similar vehicle from other companies lift this new ship?


re; sunfly

Weight wise probably but this shuttle lacks the hardpoints to be mounted underneath. Besides being dropped from underneath means that the mothership is in the way and you have to waste energy letting it get out of the way.


Virgin with its LauncherOne will be the first by 2016 with the same usful mass of 250kg and price under $10m

moreover S3 has to develop their own shuttle ...


I'm curious why the airliner is only taken to 32,808 feet when many are capable of going to 50,000 feet with a full load. With some modifications that altitude could be increased somewhat. I am also wondering about the problems with a piggy back launch of the shuttle and its proximity to the vertical part of the tail. The pictures above look more like a pipe dream to interest investors than a viable plan. I also suspect that the satellite with the attached rocket will drop from the bottom of the shuttle rather than the top. It also makes no sense to build and launch from a spaceport anywhere away from the equator where the added velocity of the earth's spin could be used to its greatest advantage.


Wow - $10M to $50M for a satellite launch? Australians are paying $2000M ($2bn) for two of these (for NBN) - somebody is making a really nice commission on that!


I imagine the reason for launch from the A300 at 10,000 metres is areodymic, ie some level of air density is required for a safe separation-and the A300 may not be able to get a lot higher with that big bug on it's back. Given that,I don't see any insurmountable problems with launching-the shuttle is a lifting body and the A300 can do a controlled shallow dive.


Do all you people with a problem with the piggy back configuration really believe that the A300 is incapable of flying fast enough for the shuttle to fly on it own wings?

re; christopher

Satellite size affects the price. $10M to $50M is for a 250kg trashcan sized satellite.


Doing the math... How is 40,000 dollars a kilo 'cheaper' than conventional rocket that tend to hover around the 10,000 dollar mark? 420kg for $9M. Less than the Swiss price for more than the Swiss weight.

John Routledge

Orbital Sciences Corporation has been doing this for 20 years, and can put a 443 KG payload in low earth orbit using their Pegasus rocket slung underneath a converted airliner. Their cost per launch is $11 million.

So it's certainly possible, though I question the wisdom of the piggyback launch. You have to modify the launch plane either way, and it's much simpler to wheel the shuttle into position underneath the launch plane than to have to lift it up on top of the plane with a huge crane.

Jon A.

Why not TOW the shuttle?


re; Jon A.

Actually it is not easier to just wheel the shuttle under the A300 it won't fit and the crane is stock and qualified crane operators plentiful.

The shuttle is carried over the wing/fuselage connection this makes the structural reinforcements necessary as light as possible and minimizes the instant inflight change in the center of gravity of the mothership when the shuttle separates. The A300 can be cost effectively returned to its original configuration.

There is not room to fit the shuttle under the A300 therefor dropping the shuttle from underneath the mothership would entail cutting a huge hole in the bottom of the airliner and hanging the shuttle well forward or aft of the center of lift giving a major change in the center of gravity of the mothership upon separation. It would be cheaper to design and build a new airplane than cutting the hole through the wing root section and rerouting the structure. Even with the minimum hole in the bottom of the fuselage the cost to return the plane to airliner configuration is staggering and if you cut the wing root it is not going to happen. .....................................................................................................................................

re; acorn

In reverse order. Flying a glider under tow is a ticklish business. The landing gear necessary for taking off in the loaded and fueled condition would be heavier than the gear needed for no cargo no propellent landing. Propellent can be topped off right before separation if firmly attached to the mothership. This is especially important if they are using a cryogenic liquid like liquid hydrogen or liquid oxygen.


re: acorn

Towing could be the best solution. The shuttle could be equipped to auto correct and follow the towplane precisely.


Possibly, extra vertical stabilizer fins may need to be added to the horizontal tailplane, to maintain yaw stability when the shuttle is being carried. NASA found this to be necessary for it's Boeing 747 Shuttle Carriers, although the Space Shuttle was a very much bigger and heavier craft than what is being proposed here

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