Today, aerospace venture Stratolaunch announced plans to develop a whole suite of rockets that will be able to launch from underneath the wings of the company’s massive six-engine plane. Three entirely new rockets are planned, including a reusable spaceplane that would bring cargo — and, eventually, people — to and from orbit. Stratolaunch says the plan is for the first of these new vehicles to launch in 2022.
Stratolaunch, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has been developing a giant dual-fuselage plane to launch rockets into orbit. The vehicle is meant to act like a flying launchpad; it’s designed to carry rockets to a high altitude and then release them just before they ignite their engines and travel onward to space. It’s a launch architecture similar to that of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, which is also developing spaceplanes and rockets that launch from underneath the wings of carrier aircraft.
Stratolaunch only had plans to launch rockets from other companies, starting with the Pegasus — a rocket made by Orbital ATK, now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems — as early as 2020. But it was long speculated that Stratolaunch would develop its own rockets, which is confirmed by today’s announcement. Stratolaunch strives to launch the first of its new rockets, a “Medium Launch Vehicle,” starting in 2022. That rocket, currently in development, will be capable of carrying about 7,500 pounds into orbit. The next planned vehicle, which is in early development, is a heavy version of the Medium Launch Vehicle, a larger variant that can carry more than 13,200 pounds.
Meanwhile, Stratolaunch is studying how to make a fully reusable spaceplane, which has been codenamed “Black Ice,” as reported by Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport. The company expects the vehicle to carry cargo to and from Earth, as well as have unspecified “advanced in-orbit capabilities,” meaning it will be able to do some maneuvering in space. Stratolaunch also plans to create an additional version of the spaceplane that can carry people.
“We are excited to share for the first time some details about the development of our own, proprietary Stratolaunch launch vehicles, with which we will offer a flexible launch capability unlike any other,” Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch, said in a statement. “Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight.”
Stratolaunch’s plane is truly massive, weighing more than 500,000 pounds. Its wingspan measures 385 feet, which is larger than a football field, making it the biggest plane ever built. Though the Stratolaunch aircraft has yet to actually take flight, the company has taxied the vehicle down the runway a few times outside the plane’s hangar in the Mojave Air and Space Port, and it has also successfully tested the six engines. It’s unclear when the plane will take to the skies. The company had planned to do the first flight later this summer, but the end of the season is almost here, and there hasn’t been a definitive update from the company.