The world’s largest airplane, Stratolaunch, is designed to heave rockets into space
Meet the Stratolaunch. It has twin fuselages, 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines, and its wingspan measures 385 feet or 117 meters. It is the largest airplane, by wingspan, ever made.
The Stratolaunch is designed to be a flying launch pad for rockets. Launching enormous rockets from the surface of the Earth carries an enormous price tag. Launch sites are also limited, and launches are susceptible to weather.
An airplane, however, can take off quickly and adjust flight times more flexibly. It costs less to send an airplane into the sky than a rocket into the sky. And an airplane can be reused, reducing costs further.
The Stratolaunch is a potentially easier, cheaper, and more reliable way to launch satellites into space. The plan is to attach rockets to the Stratolaunch’s belly; the gigantic airplane will fly to cruising altitude, where it’ll drop the rocket. The rocket then ignites its engines and blast off into orbit, where it’ll drop its payload.
The project is funded by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, and has been in development since 2011. It’s successfully taxied down the runway, hitting a top speed of 46mph. And its first flight is expected to take place within the year.
If successful, the Stratolaunch company plans to pair the colossal airplane with its own rockets, named Kraken. It says that customers will be able to use the pair to launch satellites into orbit for roughly US$30 million, or half of what SpaceX charges. This part of the project is expected to go live in 2022.
Thereafter, Stratolaunch plans to build reusable space planes that can launch from the huge airplane. Similar to the NASA space shuttle, these planes will drive into orbit, drop their payloads, and then return to Earth.
It’s a tremendous undertaking with the world’s most sizable airplane, and it’s safe to say that nothing on this scale has ever been attempted before. Stratolaunch is flying into the vast unknown here, but if successful, can make space more accessible than before.