Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic could face some low-cost competition for space tourism and commercial suborbital travel, with plans for a modified Airbus jet to carry a compact space shuttle to the edge of space.
European consortium Swiss Space Systems (S3) aims to "democratise access to space", with a shuttle designed to sit six passengers piggybacking onto an Airbus A300 launched from base in the Canary Islands.
This first stage would take the shuttle 10km above Earth, at which point it would detach and fire up its own engines to soar skywards for another 100km before returning to earth.
And as you can see from the shuttle's tail livery, Swiss watchmaker Breitling is one of S3's sponsors!
The first test flights are due in 2017 with commervial services slated for 2020.
As a commercial underpinning to S3's longer-term aims, the company sees its unique Airbus+shuttle combo as being a cost-effective way to launch satellites.
One of the first missions, in 2018, will be the launch of CleanSpace One – a satellite designed to clean up the thousands of bits of jettisoned rocket and satellite components orbiting Earth. CleanSpace One will track down this space-borne debris and hurl it into into the atmosphere, where it will burn up on re-entry.
"Our goal is to propose manned flight after having modified our suborbital shuttle for passengers" says Grégoire Loretan, S3's Head of Communications. "The first flights will be done in 2020, and in the longer term we will propose suborbital flights for the general public."
"The goal is not tourism rather a high speed suborbital transport mode for everybody."
Watch S3's video of how its satellite delivery system would work.
Virgin Galactic is aiming to launch the world's first commercial space flights next year, carrying passengers who've paid as much as US$250,000 each for the privilege.
The first flights will last for two and a half hours and include four minutes of weightlessness as the eight-seater shuttle nudges the edge of space at some 360,000 feet above the Earth's surface.
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