Stratolaunch, the six-year-old space venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it’ll use the world’s biggest airplane to launch small satellites into orbit – but what kind of satellites?
The company’s executives have always said the Pentagon could be a payload customer, but when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visited Stratolaunch’s super-hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Monday, it threw a spotlight on how important military contracts could be.
The twin-fuselage Stratolaunch plane, nicknamed Roc, is designed to carry as much as 550,000 pounds of payload up to an altitude of about 30,000 feet for launch during midflight. The plane can take off from any runway that can accommodate a 385-foot-wide, 1.3-million-pound monster. Satellites can be sent to any orbital inclination at any time, regardless of the weather. Multiple rockets can be launched during a single sortie,
All that may seem like overkill for commercial payloads, but Stratolaunch’s capability meshes well with the Pentagon’s campaign for “operationally responsive space” – that is, the quick deployment of satellites to monitor a hot spot or provide communications in a crisis.
Stratolaunch spokesman Steve Lombardi did not provide details about Wilson’s discussions with company executives, but said her visit made for “an exciting day at the hangar.”
— Dr. Heather Wilson (@SecAFOfficial) July 18, 2017
Thanks for stopping by Secretary Wilson! Easier access to space means better opportunities for all! https://t.co/DLyXeKAtbw
— Stratolaunch (@Stratolaunch) July 18, 2017
“They discussed innovation in the space industry and Stratolaunch’s approach to making access to space more convenient, reliable and routine,” he said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.
After years of construction work, conducted in cooperation with Mojave-based Scaled Composites, the Stratolaunch plane was taken out of the hangar for the first time in May for tank testing, and then brought back inside for further ground tests.
In March, Allen told GeekWire that the plane will “hopefully be flying” by the end of the year. The current flight test schedule calls for the first launch demonstration to take place as early as 2019, using a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.