In the wake of the Space Shuttle’s demise, new spacecraft are being developed in droves. While all existing craft are space capsules, not unlike those used back in the Apollo era, several of the next generation of spacecraft may be spaceplanes. One contender is being built in Switzerland, with the first prototype to be completed next year.
The SOAR spaceplane is being developed by Swiss Space Systems, or S3 for short, a new company that intends to put Swiss technology on the orbital map. Founded just one year ago, they have ambitions almost as lofty as the heights they intend their spacecraft to reach.
S3 plan to build a mockup SOAR craft next year and, if everything goes according to plan, they aim to open a spaceport at their base in Payern Airport, West Switzerland, by 2015. Test launches of small satellites weighing up to 250 kilograms (550 lb) are currently scheduled to start around the end of 2017.
A “spaceplane” is any craft that is able to glide back to the ground after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, landing as traditional aircraft instead of needing to be retrieved after parachuting to the surface. NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiter was the world’s first spaceplane, and ever since it was first flown, aerospace engineers from the private sector have been trying to design new and improved spaceplanes. From suborbital craft like the XCOR Lynx rocket plane, to sleek orbital designs like Reaction Engines’ Skylon, several spaceplanes are currently being developed.
Admittedly, SOAR, with it’s maximum altitude of around 80 km (about 50 miles), is a purely suborbital craft rather than a true spacecraft, and might be more correctly called a rocket plane (like the aforementioned Lynx). It won’t have orbital capability and will certainly never be able to dock with the International Space Station. Nonetheless, 80 km is still high enough to launch small satellites to an altitude of up to 700 km (435 miles) — a higher orbit than the Hubble Space Telescope. Via Swiss Spaceplane Set to SOAR