At the Mojave Air and Spaceport Saturday another extraordinary, well covered aircraft’s first flight soared into the Antelope Valley’s skies for inclusion in aerospace history books.
The aircraft was the Stratolaunch, built by Stratolaunch Systems, a company founded in 2011 by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and fully designated as the world’s largest plane.
The aircraft’s wingspan measures 385 feet — wider than any airplane on the planet. From tip to tail, it’s 238 feet long. It weighs half a million pounds. It’s so big, it has two cockpits.
“It’s the world’s biggest airplane,” Jack Beyer, an aerospace and launch photographer for NASASpaceFlight.com said. “It’s so huge, it seems like it shouldn’t be able to fly.”
Dozens of photographers, industry bloggers and aerospace enthusiasts gathered last week to visit the huge, unique twin-fuselage aircraft.
Basically, the Stratolaunch aircraft is a giant flying launchpad, designed to hurtle satellites into low Earth orbit. It aims to offer the military, private companies and even NASA itself a more economical way to get into space.
“Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight,” CEO Jean Floyd said in 2018.
Satellites in low Earth orbit can provide communications and broadband internet connectivity to remote areas on the ground. They can conduct valuable Earth observation and surveillance.
The market for commercial satellite launch services is growing rapidly and is expected to reach $7 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights.
Putting small satellites into space via airplanes also promises to be cheaper than traditional rocket launches because it eliminates the need for launchpads and the pricey equipment and infrastructure surrounding a traditional rocket launch.
It can also save on fuel costs, because the plane burns less fuel than a traditional rocket when it blasts off from Earth.
Bad weather won’t be much of a problem. Storms can delay a traditional rocket launch, but a jet could simply take off and fly over bad weather — or around it — and then launch the satellite.
The Stratolaunch program will face competition from billionaire Richard Branson and his Virgin Orbit company. Its LauncherOne service expects to fling rockets carrying satellites into orbit from a customized Boeing 747-400.
Virgin Orbit plans to conduct its first launch from the Mojave Air and Spaceport sometime in the middle of the year.
“We are well on our way toward providing new launch opportunities for small satellites that have waited too long for their ride into space,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said, Wednesday, in a statement.
Stratolaunch’s first flight presents the company with a new set of hoops to jump through before it can start doing business. Pilots will have to test fly the jet many more times before it can be checked and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
If it all goes as planned, Stratolaunch said the plane is expected to launch its first satellite sometime next year.