The Stratolaunch Systems concept.
The Stratolaunch Systems concept.

Stratolaunch Systems, a Huntsman, Alabama headquartered company founded by entrepreneur Paul G. Allen, will build a mobile launch system with three primary components:

  • a carrier aircraft, developed by aircraft manufacturer Scaled Composites, founded by aerspace pioneer Burt Rutan;
  • a multi-stage booster, manufactured by Space Exploration Technologies; and
  • a mating and integration system allowing the carrier aircraft to carry a booster weighing up to 490 000 lbs, to be built by aerospace engineering company Dynetics.

The carrier aircraft, to be built by Scaled Composites (a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman), will weigh more than 1.2 million lbs, have a wingspan of 385 ft (greater than the length of a football field), and use six 747 engines. It will be the largest aircraft ever constructed.

The air-launch system requires a takeoff and landing runway that is, at minimum, 12 000 ft long. The carrier aircraft can fly over 1300 nautical miles to reach an optimal launch point.

The plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar which will soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It will be near where Rutan's team at Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne funded by Paul Allen, which won the US$10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004 after three successful sub-orbital flights. Richard Branson of Virgin Group has since licensed the technology behind SpaceShipOne for Virgin Galactic, a venture that will take paying customers into space.

Lower costs, increased flexibility

The Stratolaunch system will eventually have the capability of launching people into low earth orbit, but the company is taking a building block approach in development of the launch aircraft and booster, with initial efforts focused on unmanned payloads. Human flights will follow, after safety, reliability and operability are demonstrated.

Plans call for a first flight in 2016.

The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems, reports Stratolaunch.

 “We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets. Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”
Mike Griffin, former NASA Administrator and Stratolaunch board member