Canary Islands chosen as base for low-cost satellite launches

Swiss company S3 planning to offer flights for space tourists

A computer-generated image supplied by S3 of an Airbus carrying a small spacecraft, which will be able to climb to the edge of space.
A computer-generated image supplied by S3 of an Airbus carrying a small spacecraft, which will be able to climb to the edge of space.

A consortium headed by Swiss Space Systems, known as S3, is planning to establish its European operations center in the Canary Islands, from where it says it will carry out orbital launches of small satellites and manned suborbital spaceflights from 2018.

S3 officially launched the project last week in Maspalomas, on the island of Gran Canaria, in the presence of Spain's industry minister, José Manuel Soria López. Among the Spanish companies involved are Elecnor, its technological affiliate Elecnor Deimos, Sener and Aernnova, which have already taken part in several programs run by the European Space Agency (ESA), alongside S3.

The plan is to develop a low-cost system to access space using an Airbus 300 adapted to carry a small spacecraft. The Airbus would ascend to 10,000 meters and then separate from the spacecraft, which would then climb to a height of 100 kilometers, on the edge of space. The spacecraft would also be capable of travelling a further 600 kilometers to launch satellites.

The company plans to offer seats to space tourists from 2020

The company also plans to offer up to four seats for space tourists from 2020, who would make the journey to a height of 100 kilometers, and then return to Earth, where they would make a conventional landing. Both the Airbus and the spacecraft would be reusable. European space leaders such as Dassault and Thales Alenia have a stake in S3. The company says that it can offer highly competitive rates because its aircraft can be reused. Pascal Jaussi, S3's director, says that the cost of its satellite launches is a quarter of the traditional method.

In the meantime, S3 plans to offer parabolic flights aboard the airbus by the end of next year. Parabolic flights provide the experience of zero gravity without entering space, and are often used to train astronauts, carry out research, and provide environments for movies such as Apollo 13 .

The Canary Islands region represents a perfect location to have test facilities for subsystems, mock-up, engines and complete system flight tests in 2017. A Spaceport would be built there for the integration of satellites with the Sub-Orbital Flight System and first commercial launches in 2018.

"Our plan is to establish exactly what role the Spanish companies will be playing in the next phase of the system design, which will address the spacecraft, the modifications required to be made to the Airbus 300, as well as beginning the design of the land-based infrastructure," says Augusto Caramagno, the head of S3's Spanish division.

The Canary Islands represents a perfect location to have test facilities

"Spain represents a destination of choice for S3 to achieve its objectives, both in terms of engineering and operations," Caramagno adds. "The main reasons for that lay in the maturity and track record of the Spanish aerospace sector, and the availability of airport infrastructure at various suitable locations for S3 operations." The company aims to create 80 permanent jobs between now and 2017 stemming from the activities planned for S3-Spain and its partners.

S3-Spain will count on a strong network of partners of its own. Besides Elecnor and Elecnor Deimos, Sener and Aernnova Engineering have both signed agreements with S3. Sener and Elecnor Deimos will cooperate with S3 on the design of the on-board control system, while Aernnova will contribute to the aero-structure of the S3 system.

Speaking at the unveiling of the project, José Manuel Soria highlighted the benefits to the Canary Islands and Spain of participating in the ESA, saying that for every euro the country has invested in the ESA, it has obtained a return of 2.1 euros.

But the minister has come under fire from companies operating in the sector, who point out that the Spanish government has decided to reduce its role in the ESA's upcoming projects, which means that Spanish companies will be specifically excluded from bidding for contracts.

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