World's largest airplane unveiled

Konstantin Sheiko
March 7, 2018

Stratolaunch, the world’s biggest airplane, has hit a new milestone recently, taxiing down the runway at 46 mph. While that may not sound like much, it is worth watching this giant beast with twin fuselages lumbering down the concrete. The chase cars look like Micro Machines next to this thing.   

It is a big improvement over a low-speed test conducted last December, in which the Stratolaunch traveled down a runway at just 28 mph. Previously, the massive aircraft successfully conducted a test of its six turbofan engines at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. All of these incremental milestones are said to be leading up to the Stratolaunch’s first test flight in 2019.  

Rockets have been the way to get satellites into orbit since the dawn of the space age. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen hopes to shake that up with help from the world’s biggest airplane, and his company Stratolaunch. He and a team of enthusiasts see the giant plane as a cheaper, more reliable route to low Earth orbit, the sweet spot for many kinds of satellites.    

Stratolaunch was designed by Mojave, California-based Scaled Composites, which specialises in concept aircraft. The company won the Ansari X Prize to launch the first private, reusable, manned spacecraft in 2004 with its SpaceShipOne, which was also launched from a plane.   

The goal is to use the massive airplane as a platform for lifting rockets into the stratosphere before launching them into space. Thanks to its massive size, the plane is capable of carrying payloads up to 550,000 pounds. Powered by six huge Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, the plane has a wingspan of 385 feet.    

The plane is still in development and has yet to fly, but currently it is undergoing a series of tests, including various low and medium speed tests. As to when Stratolaunch might begin commercial operations, no date has been given.    

Air-launching rockets into space is not new. Stratolaunch, however, presents a new take on an old idea. The Pegasus XL rocket built by aerospace contractor Orbital ATK launches from a modified Lockheed TriStar jetliner. NASA and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group have similar projects under development, as does the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Soviet built and designed Buran project also envisaged the rockets’ air-launch into space off the back of a flying shuttle-airplane, with their subsequent return to Earth.   

But none of these other platforms is quite on the scale of Stratolaunch. It has room between its fuselages to suspend rockets from the central portion of the wing. The company has partnered with Orbital ATK to launch its Pegasus XL rocket and aims eventually to carry three on each mission.   

Despite the ambitious nature of the project, space experts think it has a good chance of success, in part because of Allen’s deep pockets. If the development of the plane and its testing go unhindered, the company could provide crew and light cargo services to low Earth orbit for considerably less than current prices. If they fail, they will become a footnote to astronautical history for having built the world’s largest plane.    

If the plane does not deliver as planned, it could become another ”Spruce Goose”, a reference to the behemoth flying boat built in 1947, that only took to the skies once. The key test will be the first flight next year. This will determine whether Stratolaunch has a commercial future, or whether it will end up in a museum alongside the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’ behemoth flying boat. Judging by Paul Allen’s enthusiasm and positive feedback from the experts, this project might herald a new beginning for future space exploration.