Stratolaunch air launch system for spacecraft comes closer to reality


June 6, 2013

Stratolaunch Systems has announced new developments in its air launch system for spacecraft, which will incorporate the world's largest airplane

Stratolaunch Systems has announced new developments in its air launch system for spacecraft, which will incorporate the world's largest airplane

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Back in December of 2011, Stratolaunch Systems announced that it was designing a new air launch system for both manned and unmanned spacecraft. Among other things, that system would require the construction of what would be the world’s largest aircraft. While some people might understandably be skeptical of such grand plans ever seeing the light of day, the company recently announced that a couple of important milestones have been reached that bring the project closer to fruition.

You can check out our previous article for a more detailed description of how the Stratolaunch system is designed to work, but here’s the condensed version ...

The spacecraft would be attached to the front end of a 490,000-lb (222,260-kg) multi-stage booster rocket, which would itself be mounted to the underside of the twin-bodied carrier aircraft. That airplane would have a wingspan of over 380 feet (116 m), weigh 1.2 million pounds (544,311 kg), and would be powered by six 747 engines.

The plane would take off from a large airport/spaceport, fly up to the stratosphere, and then release the booster/spacecraft. The booster would subsequently fire its engines, carrying the spacecraft into low-earth orbit.

On March 25th of this year, Stratolaunch Systems announced the completion of the 103,257 square-foot (9,593 sq m) hangar in which the carrier aircraft will be will built. The structure is located at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is also home to an existing 88,000 sq ft (8,175 sq m) Stratolaunch facility where the plane’s wing and fuselage sections will be fabricated.

Just this Monday, the company went on to announce that it has entered into a partnership with Orbital Sciences Corporation, which will design, build, and operate the booster rocket. Orbital is well-established in the field, having brought us the Antares launch vehicle along with the Pegasus. Like the planned larger-payload Stratolaunch rocket, the Pegasus is also released from an aircraft.

Orbital’s involvement won’t stop with building the rocket, either, as the company will go on to be responsible for the systems engineering of the entire Stratolaunch system. SpaceX had originally been lined up for the rocket-building job, although according to a report in Flightglobal, it dropped out over issues with design changes.

Stratolaunch Systems is the result of a collaboration between philanthropist Paul G. Allen and aerospace expert Burt Rutan. The carrier aircraft is currently being built by Rutan's company Scaled Composites, which also created Spaceship One. It's scheduled to make its first test flight in 2016.

Source: Stratolaunch Systems

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I am a fan of winged, jet powered first stages but why can't the mothership pull into a steep climb pointing the rocket in the right direction before separation? If you need more power light the rockets engines burning propellent supplied from the mothership.


Slowburn, it takes more fuel for the mothership turn verticle than the rocket, plus they're already near the upper limit of the mothership so it may not have the horsepower to pull up without coming close to a stall. Any advantage in angle or altatude you'd gain by having the mothership pull up would be offset by the loss of velocity.

Keith Lamb

Maybe need delta wing & cluster engines more & expand midline carry module for Manned & drone vehicles. Or piggyback on upper rear fuselage. Can only fly from select airports, bad for Commercial Space

Stephen Russell

re; Keith Lamb

Buy using the mothership's lift and the rocket's thrust (propellent supplied from the mothership) maintaining speed to separation can not be a problem. After separation with the drop from below separation the mothership free from the rockets weight then the mothership maneuvers away by pulling through a positive G loop.


re; Stephen N Russell

What orbit do you think they can not reach only flying from select airports? The biggest danger is monopolistic landing fees.


RE Slowburn,

And the exhaust from this 400,000 lb rocket's motor does what to the aircraft as it pulls away? Other issues: Added strain on the release mechanism to deal with the thrust of the rocket as it drags the aircraft up. Waste of fuel to deal with the payload of the aircraft. added design and testing time for the aircraft to ensure it can be propelled by the rocket.


re; Captain Danger

The mothership is not going to be flying through the rockets wake. The mothership does not point in the right direction and hold until separation. It makes a curved course that passes through the right direction. At the appropriate moment the latching mechanism releases. (Explosive bolts are real reliable.) Freed of the mass of the rocket the mothership's turn tightens making the rate of separation increase. Now very light the mothership easily returns to a conventional flight mode.

The latching mechanism has to be able to release with the load in a different direction; give the specification to an engineer.

Fuel is cheap and how much fuel does the rocket use to lift the components that would be unnecessary if the rocket was pointed and moving in the right direction at separation.

The last one you got me. But I think it is worth it.


@Slowburn, as well as enough altitude to be clear of the atmosphere, the rocket needs a large 'horizontal' velocity to achieve orbit. Rockets don't just accelerate 'up'. I imagine the carrier aircraft would be flying in the desired orbital direction, so really the rocket is pointed in the correct direction at release. Personally though, I think air-launches add too much unnecessary complexity. Time will tell.

Kevin Brewster

skylon: could trump them all with it's saber engines, if reaction engines limited, gets the funding .there 2016 timeline for a flying prototype seems a bit optimistic though.

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