Stratolaunch is the unique name given to a specialized dual-fuselage airplane that, much like the name implies, could one day assist in launching small rockets and their payloads into space from the Earth’s stratosphere. This would reduce the amount of rocket fuel that must be burned to achieve a space launch and cut costs to the private sector in the process.
Image Credit: Stratolaunch/YouTube
The Stratolaunch project has been a work in progress by engineers at Scaled Composites for ages, but momentous progress was achieved just over the weekend after the Stratolaunch team witnessed the fruits of their blood, sweat, and tears when the aircraft conducted its maiden flight at more than 17,000 feet above California’s arid Mojave Desert.
“The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want the first flight to be, and for the most part, the airplane flew as predicted, which is again exactly what we want,” commented Evan Thomas, one of the test pilots who flew Stratolaunch for the first time.
Stratolaunch took off just before 7:00 A.M. Pacific time on Saturday and went on to spend nearly two hours in the air before returning to the landing strip. Below is a video showcasing the event:
Thomas went on to explain that even the landing process went smoothly for Stratolaunch: “The airplane felt really nice on the touchdown, gear felt good. We had a couple of corrections to line up in the slowdown and ended up rolling to a stop pretty much where we wanted to coming off the runway.”
Stratolaunch stands out from the crowd of other airplanes because it sports the longest wingspan of the bunch. Its wingspan measures a respectable 385 feet, 25 feet longer than a traditional American football field. Paired with a total of six PW4056 engines, Stratolaunch’s ultrawide stance will provide enhanced stability when it carries space-related payloads.
Stratolaunch is purportedly capable of flying payloads that weigh more than 500,000 pounds to altitudes that exceed 35,000 feet. At these heights, a smaller rocket could be dumped out of the plane in mid-air, reducing the amount of rocket fuel necessary to reach space. Notably, the aircraft didn’t fly anywhere close to these altitudes during its maiden flight.
Albeit an incredible feat worthy of mention in the myriad of world record books in circulation today, Stratolaunch’s future remains cloudy. Commercial space companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX are already refining the modern rocket industry with novel innovations and driving down the costs of spaceflight for the private sector.
Given the circumstances, it would be interesting to see where the Stratolaunch project goes and whether it’ll be any more economical than today’s plethora of modern rocket systems.