Space à La Suisse

A Swiss company has made ­launching satelites into space less expensive, creating more ­competition on the final frontier

From the S-3 spaceport the SOAR spaceplane would be projected off an aircraft to deposit satellites 700 km above sea level | Photos:

Satellites 700 km above sea level | Photos:

Times have changed since the frenzy of the Space Race half a century ago.

Triggered by the surprise success of the USSR’s Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite launched on 4 October 1957, the United States and the Soviet Union became obsessed with space travel. And for the duration of the Cold War, the rivalry for supremacy in space mirrored the rockets and nuclear missiles extravaganza (remember MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction?) down on earth.

Europe’s own “space race” is an altogether gentler affair, more of a friendly match with a surprise new contestant Switzerland entering the fray at a quiet provincial airport at Payerne. From there, the private company Swiss Space Systems (S-3) is tendering its bid to be the next leader in launching satellites into orbit.

From the S-3 spaceport (top r.), the SOAR spaceplane (l.) would be projected off an aircraft to deposit satellites 700 km above sea level

From the S-3 spaceport the SOAR spaceplane would be projected off an aircraft to deposit satellites 700 km above sea level | Photos:


The Swiss do it cheaper

“Switzerland’s neutrality, security and discretion” made it a natural location for the project, S-3 officials said at an inauguration celebration in mid-March. Swiss officialdom gravely accepted the compliment, especially welcome at a time when all three virtues are under such pressure.

Satellites 700 km above sea level | Photos:

Satellites 700 km above sea level | Photos:

The S-3-launched satellites, if and when they reach orbit in 2017, will not be lonely. There are now over 8,000 artificial satellites from over 40 countries jostling for a slot on the super-highway of advanced technologies. They are the basis of modern communication (and of course surveillance), giving us GPS, the Internet and the miracle of TV on demand.

Until recently, countries and governments kept a jealous hold on all this shiny stuff whooshing around the planet, but now satellite technology too has been penetrated by the free market, and space tourism is becoming an economic reality, at least for the 1 per cent.

Led by the first Swiss astronaut, 68-year-old Prof. Claude Nicollier, S-3 is planning to open the spaceport as early as 2015 and begin its first test launches in 2017.

With a budget of €185 million, this is (by space development standards) not just quick, but dirt-cheap.

S-3 says it has kept costs down by using existing, established technologies instead of developing new concepts. The thinking is similar to that of bearded balloonist Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in New Mexico, which won the X-Prize for radical innovations in 2004 for the first privately-built manned space vehicle, SpaceShipOne.


Local access to the stars

Normally, satellites are ferried into orbit on the back of rockets from one of the few rocket launch sites in the world. S-3’s approach is more mundane but a lot cheaper: The journey begins at the airport, with the satellite contained in a rocket-powered capsule fit to a plane certified for zero-G flights, like the Airbus A300, using standard fuels.

The plane takes off normally, but at 10 km above sea level the capsule detaches. Its engines then boost the capsule to its release level at 80 km above sea level, where it jettisons the satellite to its delivery height at 700 km in Earth’s orbit. The capsule and the plane land at the airport separately, leaving the component orbiting in space. It’s easy, economical, and nearly all of the components are re-usable.


DIY space market

“Cheap and local access to space will provide more possibilities for space research and increase know-how,” Valentin Eder, manager for satellite communications and Earth observation at Liquifer ( told The Vienna Review. “And within Europe that is a very good thing.”

The European space market is currently dominated by France, Germany, Italy and the UK, and for satellite technology itself, Luxembourg and Spain. “The EU launch market, at this time, is really only France,” Eder explained. Making Switzerland a player stands to boost competition in Europe and cut launch costs; it would make it  unnecessary to send a team to India or China to wait for a launch window.

“We are stepping into a do-it-yourself space market,” Eder said. Having an industry spaceport in Switzerland would increase demand for technology development, and the development of local know-how would be a major advantage to neighbouring countries.

This may also stimulate the budding Austrian space industry. The first two Austrian satellites, cTUGSAT-1 and uniBRITE, scientific satellites for accurately measuring the brightness of the stars, were launched in India in January this year.  In 2011, Ö-Space, the Austrian Space Industry and Research Database of Market Participants, found 114 Austrian companies and institutes focussing on space technology.

S-3’s mission, the company says, is “to democratise access to space by enabling emerging markets, countries, universities and research institutes to do what has not been possible for them up to now: deploy their own satellites.” For private launches, S-3 plans to charge around 10 million CHF (€8.2 million). Each launch could carry a satellite cargo of 250 kg. With the additional pressurised capsule, it would also be possible to provide sub-orbital round-trips for civilians.

So tonight, go outside and look up. You might be able to pick out your next vacation spot.

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