MOJAVE — Ground testing of the world’s largest airplane continued this week at the Mojave Air and Space Port, as the Stratolaunch aircraft reached speeds of 136 mph during taxi tests on the airport runway.
The high-speed tests are in preparation for the airplane’s maiden flight, expected by industry watchers to happen sometime this year.
The massive airplane is the centerpiece of Stratolaunch, the company formed by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen to provide convenient, reliable access to low Earth orbit for payloads such as satellites.
Built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, the aircraft is designed as an airborne launch platform, carrying a rocket to altitudes common for commercial airliners. Once at altitude, the launch vehicle is released and rockets its payload into orbit.
The twin-fuselage airplane has a 385-foot wingspan, longer than a football field, and is powered by six jet engines.
Stratolaunch and Scaled Composites tweeted images of the tests, including a photo showing a “wheelie” as the nose wheel lifted off the runway surface a short distance.
The company, founded in 2011, announced in August it plans to offer multiple types of rocket launch vehicles, including a reusable space plane capable of carrying cargo and eventually passengers.
Stratolaunch had previously announced it would use the existing Pegasus XL rocket, which has flown for more than 35 successful launches from a modified L-1011. This rocket, capable of 370 kilogram payloads, is expected to be ready for flight in 2020.
Stratolaunch’s own Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) and Medium Launch Vehicle-Heavy are intended for payloads of 3,400 kilograms and 6,000 kilograms, respectively.
The MLV is in development with the first flight anticipated in 2022; the heavy version is in the early development phase.
Lastly, a space plane to allow for in-orbit capabilities and cargo return is in the design study phase, according to a Stratolaunch news release.
With the launch vehicle capabilities, air-launched from a runway via its massive carrier aircraft, the company is advertising the ability to send a payload into space “as easy as booking an airline flight,” according to a Stratolaunch news release.
Scaled Composites has been developing the aircraft for more than six years. It first emerged from its specially built 92,000-square-foot hangar on the south side of the Mojave Air and Space Port in May 2017.
The first ground tests of the six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, taken from 747 airliners, were in September.
In addition to the 385-foot wingspan, the aircraft measures 50 feet to the top of its tails and 238 feet from its twin noses to tails.
The design is based on Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, also built by Scaled Composites, and used to air-launch the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in a similar fashion. Some 300 Scaled engineers and fabricators designed, built and assembled the mammoth airplane, according to Scaled officials.
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