Stratolaunch "Roc" Carrier Aircraft
Stratolaunch is the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan and is the largest all-composite plane ever built. It was built as part of a NASA contract to launch a scaled down version of the Dream Chaser® spacecraft.
Paul Allen died in October 2018 at the age of 65, after a struggle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Control of Stratolaunch as well as Allen’s many other ventures passed to his sister, Jody Allen, as executor of his estate.
Stratolaunch announced 18 January 2019 that it was discontinuing its programs to develop a new type of rocket engine and a new line of rockets. The company said it would continue work on the world’s largest airplane, which is designed to serve as a flying launch pad for rockets. “Stratolaunch is ending the development of their family of launch vehicles and rocket engine. We are streamlining operations, focusing on the aircraft and our ability to support a demonstration launch of the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL air-launch vehicle,” the company said. The end of the Stratolaunch launch vehicle initiative followed a series of discontinued development studies and agreements with other rocket and vehicle builders. More than 50 people were laid off as a result of the streamlining strategy, and about 20 employees were staying on to work on the plane and prepare for the flight test.
Another major milestone in the Stratolaunch aircraft’s journey to flight came on 25 February 2018 with the first low-speed taxi test. For the first time, the aircraft traveled down the runway under its own power, utilizing all six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines. The primary purpose of this activity was to test the aircraft’s ability to steer and stop. The ground team monitored a number of systems, including steering, braking, anti-skid and telemetry. All objectives of this test were achieved – culminating to the aircraft traveling down the runway at 25 knots (28 miles per hour). Once the aircraft has safely completed low-speed taxi tests, the team will begin the next phase of taxi testing which will include increased speeds.
With a wingspan of 385 feet, the Stratolaunch plane is the largest aircraft to ever fly. The Hughes H-4 Spruce Goose, with a wingspan of about 320 feet, had long held that record. The Stratolaunch has a maximum takeoff weight of 590 metric tons. With a projected gross weight of about 1.3 million pounds, the An-225 at 1.41 million pounds and the A380 at 1.3 million pounds are heavier, but not by much. Founded by Paul G. Allen in 2011, Stratolaunch is based at the Mojave Air & Space Port, with Scaled Composites leading its construction. Scaled Composites is a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.
Utilizing six Boeing 747 engines for a payload capacity of over 500,000 lbs. and an operational range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles, Stratolaunch is capable of delivering payloads to multiple orbits and inclinations in a single mission. The Stratolaunch aircraft is designed for a max takeoff weight of 1,300,000 lbs., meaning it’s capable of carrying payloads up to approximately 550,000 lbs. It will initially launch a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle with the capability to launch up to three Pegasus vehicles in a single sortie mission.
Stratolaunch is developing an air-launch platform to make access to space more convenient, reliable, and routine. Stratolaunch believes that normalizing access to low Earth orbit (LEO) has the potential to redefine our lives by creating more opportunities for commercial, philanthropic and governmental organizations to collect rich and actionable data and drive advancements in science, research, and technology from space.
Stratolaunch’s reusability and air-launch capabilities enable an airport-style approach to operations for launch services. Stratolaunch will take off from a runway, rather than a logistically vulnerable fixed range, which allows avoiding hazards such as inclement weather, airborne traffic and heavy marine activity. Stratolaunch’s airborne launch platform significantly reduces the risk of costly delays or cancellations.
On 13 December entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G. Allen announced new company, Stratolaunch Systems, will build a mobile launch system with three primary components:
- A carrier aircraft, developed by Scaled Composites, the aircraft manufacturer and assembler founded by Rutan. It will be the largest aircraft ever flown.
- A multi-stage booster, manufactured by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies; The multi-stage booster will be manufactured by California-based Space Exploration Technologies, one of the world’s pre-eminent space transportation companies. “Paul Allen and Burt Rutan helped generate enormous interest in space with White Knight and SpaceShipOne,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. “There was no way we weren’t going to be involved in their next great endeavor. We are very excited.”
- A state-of-the-art mating and integration system allowing the carrier aircraft to safely carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds. It will be built by Dynetics, a leader in the field of aerospace engineering.
The system will launch payloads of up to 6,100kg (13,500lb) in weight and 5m (16.4ft) in diameter into low Earth orbit (LEO). The Stratolaunch system will eventually have the capability of launching people into low earth orbit. But the company is taking a building block approach in development of the launch aircraft and booster, with initial efforts focused on unmanned payloads. Human flights will follow, after safety, reliability and operability are demonstrated.
On 15 February 2012 Stratolaunch systems closed on purchase of the first of two Boeing 747-400 aircraft that are being purchased from United Airlines. Stratolaunch contractor Scaled Composites of Mojave California with support from their subcontractor BAE Systems had developed a complete plan for how the engines, landing gear, hydraulics and other subsystem components of these aircraft will be disassembled and reintegrated into a custom composite aircraft to be built by Scaled Composites in Stratolaunch’s new integration facility being built at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
As of 2012 the first rocket launch was scheduled for 2016. As of early 2013, SpaceX was no longer going to build their launcher, as the new Falcon 9 v1.1's structure couldn't be made compatable with horizontal launch. Instead, Orbital Sciences would build the rocket.
The aircraft design underwent notable changes in early 2013, with a significantly lengthened, streamlined front end on both of its two fuselages. This design resulted in an increase in gross takeoff weight by 100,000lb (45,000kg), to 1.3 million lbs. Flightglobal repored in March 2013 that CEO Gary Wentz said "The tails came in a little heavier than we expected, so to move the center of gravity forward on the aircraft we had to extend out the cabin... I think it was just the early design estimate was lighter, it was multiple factors, the weight, and centre of gravity of the engines and where we placed them resulted in a change to our initial estimate."
On 13 August 2013 ATK received a contract from Orbital Sciences Corporation to provide first and second stage propulsion for the Air Launch Vehicle (ALV) that Orbital is designing and building for Stratolaunch Systems Corporation as part of an air-launched space transportation system. The contract from Orbital includes the design, development and flight hardware for initial Stratolaunch missions. This new work expands ATK's already strong partnership with Orbital, dating back to the development of Orbital's original air-launched vehicle, Pegasus®, which also uses ATK solid rocket motors for stage propulsion.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced 30 September 2014 a design for an integrated system for human spaceflight that can be launched to low Earth orbit (LEO) using Stratolaunch System's air launch architecture and a scale version of SNC's Dream Chaser® spacecraft. The Dream Chaser is a reusable, lifting-body spacecraft capable of crewed or autonomous flight. Dream Chaser is the only lifting-body spacecraft capable of a runway landing, anywhere in the world.
As designed, the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human spaceflight system can carry a crew of three astronauts to LEO destinations. This versatile system can also be tailored for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation. The scaled crewed spacecraft design is based on SNC's full-scale Dream Chaser vehicle which, for the past four years, has undergone development and flight tests as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program.
|Wing Span||385 ft|
|Max Gross Weight||1,300,000 lb|
|Launch Window Range||1,000 nmi|
|Maximum Altitude||45,000 ft|
|Runway Requirement||12,500 ft x 200 ft|
|Crew||3 plus two jump seats|
|engines||Six 747 PW4056 turbofan|
|thrust||56,750 lb at sea level|
The Stratolaunch aircraft reached a major milestone 21 May 2017 toward providing access to low Earth orbit. The Stratolaunch aircraft was moved out of the hangar – for the first time ever – to conduct aircraft fueling tests. This marked the completion of the initial aircraft construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase. Stratolaunch was on track to perform its first launch demonstration as early as 2019.
Stratolaunch announced August 20, 2018 its new family of launch vehicles that will enter regular service starting in 2020. The company’s unique air-launch system will use the world’s largest aircraft as a mobile launch platform, capable of deploying launch vehicles that will carry satellites to multiple orbits and inclinations on a single mission. With these new vehicles, Stratolaunch is poised to make access to space convenient, affordable, and routine. “We are excited to share for the first time some details about the development of our own, proprietary Stratolaunch launch vehicles, with which we will offer a flexible launch capability unlike any other,” said Jean Floyd, Chief Executive Officer at Stratolaunch. “Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight.”
The updated launch offering from Stratolaunch includes the following vehicles:
- Pegasus: With its existing track record of over 35 successful launches, Pegasus provides dependable access to orbit.
- Capability: 370 kg payload* for a single or triple configuration
- Status: Flight proven, integration and testing ongoing with first flight in 2020
- Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV): A new medium-class air-launch vehicle optimized for short satellite integration timelines, affordable launch and flexible launch profiles.
- Capability: 3,400 kg payload*
- Status: In development with first flight in 2022
- Medium Launch Vehicle – Heavy: A three-core MLV variant with capability to deploy heavier payloads to orbit.
- Capability: 6,000 kg payload*
- Status: Early development
- Space Plane: A fully reusable space plane that enables advanced in-orbit capabilities and cargo return. Initial designs optimized for cargo launch, with a follow-on variant capable of transporting crew.
- Capability: Medium-class payload or crew
- Status: Design study
*Estimated performance for a 400 km circular orbit at 28.5°
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