Giant aircraft offers a shortcut to space

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Artist's depiction of Stratolaunch carrier at apogee
Image: JR Shumacher CC BY-SA 4.0

File this one under ‘interesting’. Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, is building the world’s largest aircraft as a platform from which to launch space rockets.

The Stratolaunch aircraft being built by Scaled Composites in California for Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace company will have a wingspan of 117 metres (385 ft), 47 metres more than an Airbus A380, and even wider than the Hughes Hercules flying boat which flew once in 1947.

The twin fuselage six-engine aircraft is not entirely new. It will use engines, fuel systems, hydraulics, avionics, landing gear and cockpits from two recycled Boeing 747s. It will carry rockets weighing more than 200 tonnes under its centre wing section; will be flown from the right fuselage; and most of the two fuselages will be unpressurised. The aircraft will weigh about 590 tonnes, about 30 tonnes more than a fully loaded A380.

The purpose of Stratolaunch is to provide a low-cost way of launching commercial satellites. On his webpage, backer Paul Allen says: ‘Stratolaunch’s ability to launch from variable locations will enable satellites and humans to be efficiently inserted into their most optimal orbit at a time of the customer’s choosing.’

The company says airborne launching offers potential benefits over fixed ground launch including: improved responsiveness, flexibility to avoid inclement weather, enhanced ability to avoid flying over populated areas, and streamlined infrastructure requirements. Among its rivals are the reusable self-landing rockets being successfully developed by SpaceX.

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