Saturday morning, Stratolaunch Systems, a company founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, managed to reach a major milestone, after several years of development in the desert north of Los Angeles. A gigantic, six-engined mega jet the size of a football field has been flown for the first time. As the company’s CEO, Jean Floyd, said in a news conference taking place at the Mojave Air & Space Port hangar, „It was an emotional moment to watch this bird take flight.”
Floyd also stated that for years, he could never imagine witnessing this moment without having Paul Allen by his side. Even more, he confessed that, as the plane took flight, he whispered a private „thank you” to Allen.
Unfortunately, due to complications related to his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Allen passed away last October at age 65.
The aircraft aims to offer the military, private companies and even NASA a more economical form of reaching outer space. Simply put, the jet is designed as an enormous flying launch pad, able to push satelittes into low Earth orbit.
Stratolaunch System made the appealing promise to get humanity on a level where getting satellites into space is „as easy as booking an airline flight.”
During the two-and-a-half hour flight, the aircraft reached a maximum speed of approximately 173 mph, climbing 15,000 feet before returning smoothly and safely back.
The aircraft has reached a new record regarding wingspan, measuring 385 feet width, 238 length and half a million pounds weight. It overcomes the measures of any other airplane in the world. As Jack Beyer, an aerospace and launch photographer for NASASpaceFlight.com told CNN, „It’s so huge, it seems like it shouldn’t be able to fly.” The jet features two cockpits, one in each fuselage, although only one is used to fly the craft.
Jack Beyer also expressed his excitement to witness the new beginning of the latest trend in space industry: using jets to launch satellites.
The launch event gathered photogrophers, industry bloggers and aerospace enthusiasts, all eager to glimpse the unique twin-fuselage plane.
Behind the Scenes
Stratolaunch has made known to the public the strategy behind launching satellites using their latest aircraft, once it’s fully tested and certified. First, the jet carrying a rocket loaded with a satellite will be launched from Mojave and reach an altitude of 35,000 feet. At this point, the rocket will be launched by pilots on a trajectory towards space. The plane will then land back to safety at Mojave, while the rocket carries the satellite into an orbit above Earth, ranging from 300 to about 1,200 miles altitude. There, the rocket deploys the satellite before falling back to Earth, having the ability to be observed burning up in the sky like a meteor.
The exact cost of the craft has not been announced, but others details are known.
When designing the jet, Stratolaunch Systems took in consideration both economical and functional reasons. That is why the jet is made almost entirely of carbon fiber material instead of aluminum, with the purpose of making it both strong and lightweight, being powered by six Pratt & Whitney engines and a 28-wheels landing gear, both of the latter having originally been made for Boeing 747.
Satellite launch services’ market is growing rapidly, being expected to reach $7 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights. Satellites located in low Earth orbit contribute greatly to communications and broadband internet connectivity to remote areas on the ground, while being able to conduct important Earth observation and surveillance.
The service also promises to be cheaper than traditional rocket launches, the reason being that it eliminates the need for expensive launching equipment and insfrastructure required, while also saving on fuel costs, since planes burn less fuel than a traditional rocket when it blasts from Earth.
Even more, there are many other major benefits, such as erasing the possibility of storms delaying launches, since jets can simply take off and fly over, or around, bad weather.
Launches are announced to take place more frequently and within a faster time frame.
Richard Branson joins the game
Although, Stratolaunch has only flown once, competition has already arisen.
Billionaire Richard Branson, with his Virgin Orbit company, is threatening Stratolaunch System’s spot in the industry. Their LauncherOne service plans to use a customized Boeing 747-400, which, unlike Stratolaunch, is an already proven and verified aircraft, to fling rockets carrying satellites into orbit.
The first launch of the Virgin Orbit company is predicted to take place sometime in the middle of the year, at Mojave Air & Space port.
What to expect next
Stratolaunch Systems’ first flight has presented the company with a new set of challenges to face in the upcoming period before they can start doing business. The jets will have to be tested many more times by skilled pilots in order to be checked and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Granted that everything works out according to plan, Stratolaunch stated that the jet is expected to launch its first satellite sometime in the next year.
Sara Liard is a seasoned journalist with 15 years experience as a reporter. While studying journalism at The Art Institute of California, Sacramento, Sara wrote her thesis political corruption at the municipal level. As a contributor to Swerd Media Sarah mostly covers politics.