The world's largest aircraft recently took flight over the Mojave Desert in California. The carbon-composite plane has been built by Stratolaunch Systems Corp - initiated by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The white aircraft that has been named Roc has a wingspan of around 385 feet and is powered by six engines on twin fuselage. The plane took off for its first flight and stayed aloft for more than two hours before landing safely back at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
According to the company’s website, the plane is 238 feet long and has a maximum take-off weight of 650 tonnes. According to Jeane Floyd, Chief Executive Officer, Stratolaunch Systems Corp, “Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems.”
The aircraft has been billed by the company as making satellite deployment as ‘easy as booking an airline flight’. The first flight, which saw the plane reach a maximum speed of 189 miles per hour and the altitude of 17,000 feet, was meant to test its performance and handling qualities.
Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, had announced back in 2011 that he had formed the privately funded Stratolaunch. The company seeks to cash in on the escalating demand for vessels that can put satellites in orbit. Stratolaunch is aiming to launch its first rockets from the Roc by 2020.
According to Stratolaunch, this aircraft will carry rockets up to about 35,000 feet and then drop them in the concerned orbit. One of the advantages of such a system, touted by Stratolaunch is that flying in and out of a traditional runway gives greater flexibility and will allow for quick turnaround between launches. Up to three Pegasus launchers can be simultaneously mounted on the Stratolaunch aircraft.
If the Stratolaunch plan takes off commercially, the need for launch pads for vertical take-offs of space vehicles would reduce significantly. Only a runway would do the needful. Once at a cruising altitude, the aircraft will launch the rockets and the rockets engine would ignite and carry the satellite cargo into deep space. Only a select few facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, can handle rocket launches, which translate to tight competition for scheduling and long wait times.
Airplanes can take off from many more runways and Stratolaunch hopes to cash in on that competitive advantage. The company has spent around eight years in developing this aircraft and plans to make it commercially viable by 2022.