Early last year, the fantastic Stratolaunch took to the skies and set new records with the biggest wingspan on an aircraft ever built at 385 feet (117 m). It was designed as a new delivery method for air-to-orbit rockets. What happened, and will it ever fly again?
What are the details?
The Stratolaunch aircraft (full name the Scaled Composites Model 351 Stratolaunch) is a colossal aircraft capable of carrying rockets between its twin-fuselages. Using the power of its six Boeing 747 Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines, the aircraft platform can climb up to a cruising altitude of 35,000 ft (11,000 m) to launch a rocket into outer space. If we were to suggest that a rocket needed to reach 328,000 ft (100km) to enter orbit, then the aircraft is capable of carrying the 550,000 lb (250 t) rocket 10% of the way.
Much of the design is based on the Boeing 747-400, replicating much of the avionics, engineering, power plants, and more to reduce the $400 million cost of the project. You may notice the two cockpits on the aircraft. The captain and co-pilot sit on the right cockpit, and the unpressurized left cockpit houses the data control systems.
The aircraft is not designed for range at all, and can only fly 2,500 nautical miles (4,600 km) when ferrying up to 250t of equipment, or up to 1,000 nautical miles when launching rockets.
Has it ever flown?
The Stratolaunch completed a test flight back in April 2019.
It flew for two and a half hours at an altitude of 17,000 feet over the desert, reaching a maximum speed of 189 miles-per-hour. While in-flight, several tests were conducted to evaluate the aircraft’s flight control systems and to test its handling. It successfully navigated through a long list of maneuvers such as roll doublets, yawing maneuvers, steady heading side slips, and simulated landing approaches.
As we reported back in April last year, we suggested that “this successful flight will no doubt be the first of many for the progressive aircraft company.” Alas with the passing of the CEO (Microsoft’s Paul Allen), funding dried up, and the team found themselves putting the aircraft up for sale.
When will it fly again?
In June 2019, the company shopped itself around for US$400 million. This sale included the sole aircraft, the company facilities, equipment, designs, and other intellectual property. As you can imagine, either this concept would be instantly snapped up for its very unique technologies, or it would never find a buyer.
Fortunately, the former seems to have occurred, and by October 2019, the firm reported that they had found a new group of investors.
The company has changed direction and now offers the Stratolauch aircraft for high-speed test services. Companies that are developing rockets or hypersonic aircraft plan to use the platform to get their plane up to altitude before performing rocket tests.
Noticing that many space clients want a full solution to orbit (not just a halfway option), the company is also developing its own take on rocket engines to launch cargo into orbit by 2023.
We have not seen the last of the Stratolaunch and will look forward to its shadow crossing the desert in the future.
What do you think? Would you like to fly onboard the Stratolaunch aircraft? Let us know in the comments.