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Stratolaunch Systems to Build Aircraft-Based Space Launcher

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft illustration (Stratolaunch Systems)

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft illustration (Stratolaunch Systems)

Stratolaunch Systems in Huntsville, Alabama announced plans to build a space launch aircraft and booster rocket with the capacity to replace the recently retired NASA space shuttle. The company, started by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, will partner with aircraft manufacturer Scaled Composites, space vehicle developer Space Exploration Technologies, and aerospace engineering company Dynetics.

The entire system consists of a carrier aircraft that will serve as a launch platform for a multistage booster rocket. Stratolaunch says the carrier aircraft (pictured left), built by Scaled Composites in Mojave, California — a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman — will be the largest aircraft ever flown. The aircraft plans to use six Boeing-747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds, and a wingspan of more than 380 feet. For takeoff and landing, it will require a runway 12,000 feet long.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), will build the multi-stage booster rocket launched from the carrier aircraft. SpaceX is a developer of commercial launch vehicles, including the Falcon 1, the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach orbit. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, was a co-founder of the Internet payments service PayPal, since acquired by e-Bay.

Dynetics, in Huntsville, Alabama, will provide technical integration and engineering for the overall system. Dynetics’s responsibilities are expected to include program management, systems engineering, flight dynamics, and integration testing and operations. The company will also design, manufacture, test, and integrate the hardware that attaches the booster rocket to the carrier aircraft.

Stratolaunch Systems says the carrier plane will be built in a hangar which will soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The company plans to hold the system’s first flight in five years.

The carrier aircraft is expected to operate from a large airport or spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. Stratolaunch Systems plans to operate its space launch facilities much like an airport to help make the delivery of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions, more economically feasible.

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