European Union and Switzerland are going to participate in budget of new venture for reusable space launch vehicle designed especially for nano and small satellites.
General trend in space industry for developing alternative solutions for lift small satellites for less found understanding in Europe. Under European program of technology innovation, European Horizon 2020, new project founded possibility of further development - it is Air Launch space Transportation using an automated Aircraft and an Innovative Rocket (ALTAIR). It is focused to low cost and ecology and is based on cooperation of various companies and research institutes across the Europe gathered under leadership of French aerospace development agency ONERA (Office National d’Etudes et Recherches Aerospatiales). In project financed by European Union and Swiss government participating: Bertin Technologies (France), Piaggio Aerospace (Italy), GTD Sistemas de Información S.A. (Spain), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (Switzerland), NAMMO Raufoss AS (Norway), SpaceTec Partners (Belgium),CNES and ONERA (France). Project goal is to develop in three years new system for lifting satellites with weight from 50 kg to 150 kg to altitude from 400 km to 1000 km (Low Earth Orbit). ALATAIR will be built with composites, equipped with hybrid propulsion fueled with H2O2 and based on two stages; for cost reducing it will be operating from ordinary runways with minimal infrastructure. First stage will be plane starting and landing horizontally from conventional runways (similar to Virgin Galactic White KnightTwo). Plane will lift rocket (planned second stage) under wing to approximately 12000 m - 14000 m separate. Rocket will start engines and continue autonomous flight while plane will return and land horizontally. Whole project is generally continuation of PERSEUS program which was developed by CNES since 2006. Under PERSEUS Eole technology demonstrator was built and tested in 2013. It was scaled model of future lifting plane very similar to presented ALTAIR. It will be probably utilized now for first flight tests and avionics testing.
European space industry was one of the few big players on world space market without any modern solution for lifting small satellites. After problems with schedule and budget of Ariane 6, after cancelling Baikal reusable rocket program and leaving hopes for creating launch vehicle comparable to Falcon-9, Europe decided to stop staying behind. Of course attempts like ALTAIR could be compared with commercial initiatives in USA which are developed without any great support of NASA, but still it is positive sign of change. Maybe ESA will spot that times are changing and Airbus Defence and Space is not the alpha and omega of space industry.
On picture above - ONERA wind tunnel facilities in French Alps.