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article imageWorld's biggest plane marks another milestone

By Karen Graham     Feb 28, 2018 in Technology
Seattle - Rockets have been the way to get satellites into orbit since the start of the space age. But Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen hopes to change that idea with the help of the world's largest plane, the Stratolaunch.
Stratolaunch is a "beast of a plane," weighing in at over 540,000 kg (1,200,000 lb), including the fully-fueled launch vehicle, and will require a runway at least 3,700 meters (12,000 ft). The aircraft has twin fuselages and a 385-foot (117 meters) wingspan. Paul Allen's Seattle, Washington-based Stratolaunch Systems Corporation has been developing the plane as a mobile launch system.
The project was officially announced in December 2011. The launch platform has three primary components: the aircraft itself, built by Scaled Composites, a multi-stage payload "launch vehicle" which would be launched at high altitude into space from under the carrier aircraft, plus a mating and integration system by Dynetics.
As previously explored by Digital Journal, The Stratolaunch is designed to carry satellites into low-Earth orbit — achieved by launching vehicles to a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet (11,000 meters). At this point, the aircraft becomes a mobile launch pad, and it will release the satellites and their launchers into orbit. On completing the task, the aircraft is designed to land back on Earth.
The massive aircraft has been put through many tests over the past year, but has yet to take flight. In a test last December, the plane taxied out onto the runway at the Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California, and hit a speed of 28 mph in its first taxi tests.
The Stratolaunch plane is pushed out of the hanger for the first time in the Mojave desert  Californ...
The Stratolaunch plane is pushed out of the hanger for the first time in the Mojave desert, California on May 31, 2017
April Keller, Stratolaunch Systems Corp/AFP
New milestone reached on Sunday
Several key milestones were reached on the plane's latest test run last Sunday. Stratolaunch reached a taxi speed of 46 mph, a huge improvement over December's test, and more importantly, Stratolaunch chief Paul Allen said his team has also verified that they can steer and stop the aircraft — another success since the tests' purpose is actually to certify that operators can control the huge plane.
The company has not revealed what other tests need to be done before a target launch date in 2020, but the development of the launch platform has to be completely finished and tested before a flight attempt. And if all goes well, we will soon see an affordable way to ferry small satellites to Low Earth Orbit.
The Stratolaunch is huge
The massive plane is powered by six huge Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines and can carry a payload of over 230,000 kg (500,000 lb). Stratolaunch has been designed to have a range of 2,200 km (1,200 miles) at 35,000 feet when flying an air launch mission.
Allen's company has partnered with Orbital ATK to launch its Pegasus XL rocket and aims eventually to carry three on each mission. The Stratolaunch has room between its fuselages to suspend rockets from the central portion of the wing. Interestingly, the Stratolaunch fuselage combination is similar to the two-fuselage combination with Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne, which Richard Branson's Virgin Group is also developing for satellite launches.
More about stratolaunch, airlaunch capable, Satellites, Milestone, Technology
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