You can't be a Silicon Valley billionaire without having your own initiative to build a big arse aircraft. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is most definitely a Silicon Valley billionaire, and today he proved that by pulling the world's largest aeroplane out of its hanger for the first time and showing the world what the future of rocket launches might look like.
Photos: Stratolaunch Systems Corp.
Allen first announced the Stratolaunch way back in 2011. Test flights were supposed to begin in 2016, but that deadline came and went. Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his team have been hard at work on the massive aeroplane all this time. Though no test flights were performed today, we did get our first look at this bad boy in a ton of hi-res photos that will put a smile on the face of anyone who fancies aircraft gear porn.
Being the largest aeroplane in the world would be enough to make the Stratolaunch interesting in its own right, but its intended use is what makes it so cool. Today was reserved for fuelling tests, but when its operational, the plane will hopefully fly into low Earth orbit and launch a Orbital ATK's Pegasus XL rocket into space. The rocket is designed to carry small satellites that weigh up to 454kg into orbit. One the Stratolaunch hits an altitude of 10,668m, the rocket that's tethered to its belly will finish out the journey. If Allen's full ambitions are realised, the company will be able to send crewed missions into space at a lower price than Russia is charging NASA.
Get ready for a dump of technical specs. The Stratolaunch has a wingspan of 117m, it uses six 747 jet engines, sits on 26 wheels, can carry 113,400kg of fuel, and weighs 226,800kg without fuel. In order to take off, it needs about 3660m of runway. That's a bit of a problem because most commercial aircraft require around 2440m of runway.
In a statement, Stratolaunch's chief executive, Jean Floyd, said that ground tests and flight tests will be conducted "over the coming weeks and months", and its first launch is set for 2019. Floyd also said that the company is "actively exploring a broad spectrum of launch vehicles that will enable us to provide more flexibility to customers".