The gigantic Stratolaunch carrier has made its first appearance outside of its hangar in the Mojave Desert, and will soon function as an “aerospace taxi”, sending satellites into outer space.
Without these state-of-the-art satellites on their unwavering orbit around the Earth, a significant number of the technologies that we now take for granted would not be possible, including vehicle navigation, television broadcasting and mobile phone networks. Until now, the process of transporting artificial spacecraft to the required location has been both expensive and inefficient: The ability to go ahead with the flights depends a lot on the weather, the launch rockets use a lot of fuel and only one satellite can be transported per flight.
However, if US-based billionaire Paul Allen gets his way, all this could change in just two years’ time. By this point, the Stratolaunch carrier will be ready to launch rockets—and later people–into space, giving the world a “conventional” means of accessing the universe immediately surrounding our planet. Development of the huge aircraft, also known as “The Roc”, was funded by the Microsoft co-founder and has been ongoing for the past six years. The superlative results are hard to beat.
An enormous flying launch pad
This huge cargo aircraft features a double fuselage, giving it a world-record-breaking wingspan of 117 meters. By comparison, the wingspan of an Airbus A380 stretches just 80 meters, and the average width of a football field is 100 meters. With a length of 72 meters, tail height of 15 meters, tare weight of 229 metric tons and a payload of 250 metric tons, this aircraft outperforms the vast majority of airplanes built to date. Six Pratt & Whitney 4056 engines, the same series used in the Boeing 747-400, power the aircraft to reach a maximum speed of 850 kilometers per hour. This flying giant on 28 wheels has a maximum take-off weight of 590 metric tons, a range of 14,800 kilometers when transporting cargo.
Three satellite rockets are positioned below the huge rear section of the aircraft, waiting to be transported by “The Roc” to a height of 9000 meters before being released into the Earth’s atmosphere. The satellite rockets then start their own engines and independently begin orbiting the Earth. The first test launch is planned for 2019, and if the tests with the multistage rockets run smoothly, Allen hopes that one day he will also be able to send people into outer space, thereby revolutionizing space travel as we know it. “This aircraft is designed to be comfortable and reliable and offer routine access to the low Earth orbit,” explains Jean Floyd, Chief Executive of Stratolaunch Systems, the company building “The Roc”.
The lucrative business of microsatellites
Rumor has it that the project has so far cost Stratolaunch 270 million US dollars (approx. 240 million euro), but the company expects to quickly offset this investment: The fact that the carrier can be continuously reused as a start ramp means that the process of launching satellites is set to become much more affordable. Customers are already queuing up to use this service.
This customer base includes a fair number of large technology corporations that plan to send their own microsatellites into the low Earth orbit. Based on current estimates, up to 500 of these satellites could be launched each year to perform a variety of different tasks, such as transmitting images for navigation services such as Google Earth. It’s also no surprise that various other visionary business leaders have already set their sights on this huge market, among them Richard Branson and Elon Musk.