Thu. Jun 1st, 2023
The Stratolaunch aircraft has a wingspan of 117 meters.
enlarge / The Stratolaunch aircraft has a wingspan of 117 meters.

Stratolaunch Systems Corp.

When Stratolaunch Systems Corp. In the past year, having rolled out its supermassive plane from its hangar and conducted some ground tests, there was one big unanswered question: What is the purpose of building the largest plane in the world?

Yes, the company had signed an agreement with Orbital ATK, a Dulles, Virginia-based company, to have its aircraft serve as the first stage for launching Pegasus XL rockets from the air. But these are relatively small rockets, measuring just 1.27 meters in diameter — compared to the Stratolaunch plane’s 117-meter wingspan — and capable of lifting less than half a ton into low Earth orbit. This is a bit like using a Falcon Heavy rocket to launch some Cubesats into space.

Maybe we finally have some clues. As part of his forthcoming book The Space Baronsthe Washington PostChristian Davenport got Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen to share his ambitions for the giant plane. And it turns out that Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, wants to launch a reusable space shuttle into orbit.

Internally, the company calls the shuttle proposal “Black Ice.” In an interview, Allen told Davenport, “I’d like to see us have a fully reusable system and run repeatable airport-style operations weekly, if not more often.”

Allen apparently offered few technical details, but did explain that the spaceplane would be about the same size as NASA’s space shuttle, which had a wingspan of 24 meters. Due to the mobility of the Stratolaunch aircraft, the shuttle could be launched from virtually anywhere in the world where the large aircraft could take off. And the system would be completely reusable, with the plane serving as the first stage and the spaceplane only needing to be refueled.

Initially, the spaceplane could fly to the International Space Station (although this facility could disappear by the end of 2025) or launch satellites into orbit. Eventually it could be able to transport people, although there are no immediate plans for that.

Stratolaunch also has no immediate plans to develop the “Black Ice” vehicle. Building a new spaceplane from scratch would likely take several years and hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars — and it’s not clear whether Allen will commit to funding such an initiative. For now, Stratolaunch wants to make sure his huge plane can fly. A first test flight could perhaps come in 2019.

By akfire1

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