Picture Kindly provided by Stratolaunch.
Stratolaunch is a private company that exists largely in part thanks to the funding of billionaire Paul Allen, one of the co-founders of Microsoft. In 2011, the company announced plans to develop an air-launch platform. Part of this involves the development of a giant aircraft, originally designed to carry a modified SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Those plans have been set aside in favor of using the craft for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket.
With the ability to carry three rockets at a time, Stratolaunch hopes to appeal to government and security agencies. This increased size allows them to launch an entire constellation of small satellites into orbit at once. While there are benefits of a mass launch to private company, security agencies could use this to their advantage in combative situations.
After a series of successful taxi tests conducted over the weekend, the company is one step closer to realizing its plans for an air launch system. The tests were conducted at the Mojave Air and Space Port. During this time, the giant plane was able to reach a top speed of about 46 miles per hour. Tests were conducted to ensure recent updates made to the braking and steering systems were functioning as expected. The company plans to use other data obtained during those taxi tests to make additional improvements to the aircraft. These were not the first tests the craft endured. In December, the craft taxied under its own power for the first time and was subsequently tested at much lower speeds.
The aircraft developed by Stratolaunch has the world’s largest wingspan, at almost 384 feet. It weighs about 500,000 pounds and is designed to carry a maximum takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds. A three-person crew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, and a flight engineer, are required to properly guide the craft. Six 747 engines power the craft.
In addition to launching satellites and other objects into space, the company hopes to use the aircraft to launch a spaceship. This ship is intended to shuttle cargo and astronauts to and from low Earth orbit in less than a day.
Future tests are necessary before the craft is ready for launch. It needs to go through several more taxi tests at increasingly higher speeds, especially those required for takeoff, before it can be cleared. Stratolaunch has not yet publicly announced a timetable for those tests, nor has it divulged any information about its anticipated first flight. The company has stated that they hope to see the aircraft take off at some point in 2019.
A spokesperson for Stratolaunch confirmed to reporters late last year that the company was thinking about developing a propulsion system. They have hired engineers and inked a Space Act Agreement with the Stennis Space Center for the use of a test stand. Stratolaunch hopes to explore numerous possibilities to give governments, individuals, and private companies consistent, reliable, and safe access to space.