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Image: Stratolaunch with Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rockets
An artist’s rendering shows the Stratolaunch twin-fuselage airplane with Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles slung underneath. (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems has renewed its partnership with Orbital ATK on a platform that will make use of the world’s biggest airplane to launch rockets into orbit.

Allen started up Stratolaunch five years ago, and since then the venture has been developing a 385-foot-wide, twin-fuselage airplane inside a giant hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company, which is part of Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace group, aims to start launching payloads by 2020.

Stratolaunch teamed up with Orbital Sciences Corp. back in 2012, with the idea of having Orbital supply rockets that would be launched from the airplane in mid-flight. Since then, Orbital merged with ATK, and Stratolaunch had to rethink its partnerships amid the changing market for launch services.

Today, the two companies announced that they’ve forged a multi-year, production-based partnership, under which Orbital ATK will provide its Pegasus XL rockets for Stratolaunch’s system.

The rockets will be able to send satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into orbit, operating from a wide range of locations and targeting any orbital inclination. Artwork released by Stratolaunch suggests that as many as three rockets can be loaded aboard the airplane in a single flight.

Pegasus rockets already have been used for 42 space launch missions that have put more than 80 satellites into orbit, including NASA’s NuSTAR and IRIS probes. They’re typically launched from Orbital ATK’s carrier airplane, a modified Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

“We are energized by this evolved partnership with Orbital ATK,” Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch Systems and executive director of Vulcan Aerospace, said in today’s news release. “Orbital ATK is the world’s most experienced air-launch service provider, and we are proud to leverage that expertise and progressive approach in pursuit of our shared goal of convenient and affordable commercial access to low Earth orbit.”

Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group, said his company is “excited by this collaboration and sees it as a positive first step in a long-term partnership.”

Floyd, a former executive at Orbital ATK, took over at Vulcan Aerospace just last month. When that personnel shift was announced, Allen said Orbital ATK was a “valued partner.” However, Vulcan has suggested there may be other launch partners as Stratolaunch moves into its operational phase.

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