New mega-sized airplane could fly satellites into space

The Stratolaunch airplane has already made one landmark accomplishment: It's set a new world record for the largest airplane on Earth.

James Carlin | Jun 05, 2017

Airplanes have been ferrying people and goods around Earth's surface for more than a hundred years, but an aerospace firm has just built an airplane that it hopes could fly satellites into space. The Stratolaunch airplane, a double-fuselage behemoth with a wingspan three times that of a Boeing passenger jet, aims to be a dramatically lower-cost alternative to conventional fuel-intensive rocket flights.

The airplane rolled out of its hangar for the first time this week. The manufacturer is California-based company Scaled Composites, which is also building a space plane for Richard Branson called the Virgin Galactic White Knight 2. Branson hopes to see a successful White Knight 2 flight later this year.

The Stratolaunch airplane has already made one landmark accomplishment: It's set a new world record for the largest airplane on Earth. The airplane runs on six engines and 28 wheels, and it has a 385-foot wing span. Its two fuselages hold enough space between them to fit an air launch vehicle that will hold the space satellite that NASA wants to send to space. The airplane will fly its cargo to the upper limits of Earth's atmosphere, at which point small rocket boosters on the air launch vehicle will fire up and carry the satellite the rest of the way to its destination point in low Earth orbit.

Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder, founded Stratolaunch in 2011 with the hopes of finding an easier, more cost-effective route to space. The company is now inspecting its new airplane for any fuel leaks and will perform some on-ground engine runs in coming months. A test with a flight crew will take place at some point after these initial steps.

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