Please note: The aircraft discussed in this article and the company that made it share the same name. To differentiate between the aircraft and the company, the plane will always have the article ‘The’ in front of it. For example, saying “The Stratolaunch” refers to the plane, while plainly saying “Stratolaunch” refers to the company.
Stratolaunch Systems, a subsidiary of Vulcan Aerospace, has rolled out its newest aircraft, which is the largest airplane ever produced. The aircraft, called The Stratolaunch, is designed to release rockets carrying satellites into space. It has a wingspan of 385 feet, has a height of 50 feet, and features six engines that are used on Boeing 747 planes. The Stratolaunch can carry 500,000 pounds (about 226,796 kilograms) of cargo. It can carry up to 250,000 pounds (113,398 kilograms) of fuel, and its total weight can reach 1.3 million pounds (589,760 kilograms). The plane features a twin fuselage configuration and has 28 wheels. The plane was initially announced in 2011, and has been under construction for about four years.
The new plane dethrones the Russian-built Antonov An-225 for the title of largest aircraft. Though the An-225 is longer than The Stratolaunch, The Stratolaunch has a wingspan that is 95 feet longer than the An-225.
The plane was built by Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder and an owner of both the Seattle Seahawks, an American Football team, and the Portland Trailblazers, an American basketball team. Stratolaunch initially partnered with Orbital ATK, an aerospace manufacturer, to launch the Pegasus XL, a satellite-delivering rocket produced by Orbital ATK. The Pegasus XL can deliver satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms), and will be bound to the belly of the plane. The rockets will be released from The Stratolaunch at an altitude of 35,000 feet. In a statement, the company said that is looking at accommodating other vehicles besides the Pegasus.
“When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine. That’s the thing about new platforms: When they become easily available, convenient, and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts,” said Allen. “Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the Web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) holds similar revolutionary potential.”
Stratolaunch isn’t the only company working to develop an aircraft capable of launching rockets and satellites into space. Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic created Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit hopes to use a Boeing 747-700 to release rockets at 35,000 feet.
Estimates say that The Stratolaunch won’t fly until at least 2019. Until then, the plane has to go through multiple ground tests. Fueling tests will be conducted first. Engine and taxiing tests will be conducted soon after.