The world now officially has a new largest plane, and it looks very different than the ones that we’ve got used to seeing at airports. However, this new piece of technology won’t be carrying any passengers. Instead, it’s going to be used for sending satellites into space. Its design is quite unusual, and it involves the twin-hull Stratolaunch Aircraft that looks like two seagulls that got joined at the tip of their wings. It also has six engines and is supported by 28 wheels.
Stratolaunch was founded in 2011 by Paul Allen, who’s also a co-founder of Microsoft. The goal here was to make a way to access space easier, and this gigantic aircraft was what the company came up with. It will carry satellites between the two hulls, all the way to the upper atmosphere. When they get high enough, the little launchers will use their own rockets and carry on to the low orbit on their own.
The aircraft has a 385-foot wingspan, which makes it three times the size of the Boeing 737, and it’s made by a California-based Scaled Composites, Mojave. In fact, the plane was just wheeled out of the hangar for the first time. Despite the fact that Stratolaunch is the biggest plane ever made, it’s not the first that was supposed to carry out ‘air launch to orbit’ missions.
This way of sending satellites and rockets to space is definitely more economic, and the wings are making it a lot easier to get to the altitude required for releasing the ‘cargo’.
Regular Rockets need an enormous amount of energy in order to be able to just fly straight up, especially when it comes to the low and dense parts of our planet’s atmosphere. This is the reason why they were built to be disposable, and why heavy parts are being released from the rest of the rocket once the fuel is out. However, planes with long wings can gradually achieve the same altitude, but much less energy needs to be spent to do that. And so, Stratolaunch has become the new heavy-lifter.
Thanks to the fact that it can be launched from a runway, it’s both more flexible and more economical than a traditional rocket. Also, when it comes to rockets, they have pretty tight windows of time, since engineers have to wait for exactly the right moment in the Earth’s rotation in order to reach the desired position. On the other hand, all that this plane needs to worry about is where’s the big enough runway for it to take off.
Another similar project was also near completion, and its name is Virgin Galactic‘s White Knight 2. This one has twin hulls too, but it won’t be used for carrying satellites, but in fact, it’s going to carry and release SpaceShipTwo. This is going to be a rocket that’ll carry the wealthy to the edge of space. The plan, for now, is to have a first flight sometime this year.
Stratolaunch’s size and design can allow it to carry up to three Pegasus XL vehicles with the ability of air lunch at once. Each of these vehicles can haul a 1,000-pound satellite to the low orbit, and the company’s even trying to find different ways of fueling the vehicle. This might allow them to get enough boost to carry even larger and heavier satellites.
This system sounds much better and cheaper than rockets, and despite the fact that many agree with this, there are also a lot of those that don’t. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, for example. He claims that making such complicated and large plains isn’t worth the cost and that he’d rather build a bigger rocket.
Still, the plane is built, and the next goal is getting it off the ground in the first place. Right now, Stratolaunch is testing the fueling systems, as well as checking for leaks by filling each of its six tanks separately. After that, engines will be checked, and finally, the first flight is being planned. At first, the flights will be under the FAA’s experimental certification.
The company claims that their highest priority is safety and that things will go as slowly as they need to. They are planning the first launch sometimes in 2019 if all goes well until then.