Air Launch Solutions for Micro-Satellites

Abstract :

The interest for very small satellites (nano, micro, mini) is increasing day after day. Such satellites offer the opportunity for numerous space applications to a large community all around the world. If the number of existing platforms is impressive, an important bottleneck in their development is probably the access to space and the launch system, particularly in Europe. Only heavy launch vehicles are available in the old continent, and even the Vega future launcher could be considered as “big” for nano or microsats. The main drawback of such solution is the fact that the satellite is considered as an auxiliary payload resulting in a lack of flexibility in the choice of the orbit, the date, the environment, etc.. The more the technology offers the opportunity to integrate interesting applications on those very small satellites, the more the customer will appreciate a complete injection service.

But the choice for a dedicated launch system is a difficult one for Europe. The accessible market remains small (but increasing) and relatively unpredictable. And the competition with existing foreign systems already requires ambitious performances in terms of flexibility, availability, reliability and, of course, costs. Conventional solutions of micro launchers (meaning fully expandable, vertical take off, state of the art technologies) are generally rapidly out of the competition due to the scale effect on the specific cost and the recurring difficulty to be operated from the European continent. Air launch solutions may bring some advantages, reducing the size of the launcher due to different dynamic effects, eliminating the launch pad requirement, etc. Numerous airborne concepts exist, but only one is already fully operational in the world. The presentation will discuss the different systems, including original concepts and concepts inspired by existing ones. Preferred solutions for Europe will be detailed considering different airborne platforms (cargo, airliner, fighter, UAV, etc.) and methods of launch.