Paul Allen, Microsoft's billionaire co-founder, has unveiled the world's largest airplane, with a wingspan that stretches the length of a football field. The twin-fuselage plane is designed for air-to-low orbit space launches and is ready for testing.
Vulcan Aerospace Stratolaunch Carrier
While it was announced in 2011, the work on the carrier started in 2010 under Allen's company Stratolaunch Systems. Construction on the plane didn't start ramping up, though, until the last four years in California at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Originally the goal was for the carrier to be ready for test flights in 2016 but it wasn't ready and missed the original target window. It looks as though the plane is indeed ready to go now, with fueling tests ready to begin followed by ground and flight tests.
The behemoth of a plane is a unique design, being built from two Boeing 747-400 planes with six 747 engines and may be capable of carrying 550,000-pound payloads. The wingspan is 385 feet, is 238 feet long, and has a tail height of 50 feet and can reach an altitude of 30,000 feet.
As mentioned above, the reason behind this is to help with low-orbit satellite launches. Allen's idea behind the plane was to provide a cheaper, faster means of launching satellites into orbit. While early test launches will keep it limited to one, Stratolaunch has expressed its belief that the plane could launch up to three satellite rockets per flight. To accomplish this, Stratolaunch announced a partnership with Orbital ATK, who will provide the first few vehicles that will launch from the carrier.
— Paul Allen (@PaulGAllen) May 31, 2017
Future Of Flight
This news is another big step in establishing commercial and privatized spaceflight. Since the early 2000s, multiple companies have popped up to plant a flag in it, two of the more prominent being SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is focused on finding viable means to colonize Mars. Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson, also has plans not only for scientific launches but also low-orbit flights for the public.
It's worth noting that Virgin Galactic is planning its own series of test flights and satellite launches to compete with Stratolaunch.
For Stratolaunch, though, successful test flights and launches could lead to more applications for the carrier. The current model of launches use one-and-done rockets for individual satellites and shuttles. Having a means of doing multiple satellite deployments without having to prep individual launches streamlines and eases the process. This could also open the door to more applications outside of satellite launches, though what those could be remains to be seen.