Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems Corporation on Wednesday launched the world’s largest airplane. The airplane has been designed to facilitate air launches for spacecraft carrying satellites.
The Stratolaunch plane features a wingspan of 385 feet, is 50 feet tall, and is powered by six Pratt & Whitney engines. These are the same engines that powered the Boeing 747. The aircraft weighs 500,000 pounds without fuel, 750,000 pounds with fuel. With payload, the aircraft will weigh as much as 1.3 million pounds.
Paul Allen hopes to make launching spacecraft more affordable by air launching rockets carrying small satellites. Allen has partnered with Orbital ATK, a partnership that will see the Orbital’s Pegasus XL being launched from the Stratolaunch platform. The rockets will be attached to the belly of the aircraft and once the aircraft reaches an altitude of 35,000 feet, the rockets will drop and air launch into space. The rockets are capable of launching small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.
Air launching offers a cheaper and more efficient alternative to launching satellites as vertical rocket launches are expensive and require immense resource commitments.
The Stratolaunch aircraft will now undergo ground and flight testing to make the plane as safe as possible for the crew, pilots and staff. Stratolaunch is on schedule to perform its first launch demonstration as early as 2019.