World’s largest aircraft eyes LEO payloads’ deployment by 2022

After a two-year hiatus California-based Stratolaunch is pushing ahead with plans to commmercialise its twin-fuselage, six-engine, catamaran-style Stratolaunch Carrier (Roc) – the biggest aircraft ever built.

Originally conceived to carry modified SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Stratolaunch Carrier aircraft has conducted two successful test-flights, the first on April 13, 2019, and the second on May 1, 2021.

Following fallout between SpaceX and Stratolaunch, the Stratolaunch Carrier has since been repurposed to launch multiple satellite-bearing vehicles into LEO in a single mission – thanks to its innovative aerospace design and huge wingspan.

LEO boost

Once carried into LEO on the giant Carrier a rocket’s engines are meant to ignite, carrying it and its satellite payload to its intended orbit or further into space.

Stratolaunch aims to fly at least 12 payload missions annually with the Carrier by 2022.

Stratolaunch was founded and funded in 2011 by late Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen.

The Carrier’s carbon fibre reinforced centre wing is capable of supporting multiple launch vehicles. Credit: Stratolaunch

In addition to developing its Carrier air-launch platform to make access to LEO more convenient, reliable and routine, Stratolaunch today also designs, manufactures, and launches aerospace vehicles and technologies, to significantly advance US hypersonic flight-test capabilities and help improve America’s ability to design and operate cutting-edge hypersonic vehicles.

Currently the world’s largest aircraft, the revolutionary Stratolaunch Carrier is engineered to deploy a range of launch vehicles of various shapes and weights.

With a mega wingspan of 117.0m (385ft) – the largest of any aircraft ever built – the Carrier’s tip-to-tip wings stretch longer than an American football field, including the end zones.

The mega aircraft is powered by six Pratt & Whitney (Boeing 747) engines. Credit: Stratolaunch

The aircraft’s innovative twin-fuselage and high-wing design permit launch vehicles to release from the aircraft centre line and below the centre wing for a much safer deployment than from the ground.

The Carrier’s carbon fibre reinforced centre wing provides lift, stability and pylons capable of supporting multiple launch vehicles weighing more than 250 tons (500,000lbs).

The aircraft is 15.24m (50ft) tall, from the ground, to the top of the dual vertical tails.

The Stratolaunch Carrier stands 15.24m (50ft) tall, from the ground, to the top of the dual vertical tails. Credit: Stratolaunch

With a max takeoff weight of 589,670kg (1.3 million lbs), the aircraft’s exceptional payload capacity is powered by six Pratt & Whitney engines – permitting the giant aircraft to travel more than 1,000 nautical miles and reach altitudes up to 10,668m (35,000ft).

Original use

The Carrier’s six Pratt & Whitney engines and 28-wheel landing gear were originally designed for Boeing 747s.

The aerospace company, Scaled Composites, which worked with Stratolaunch to build the Carrier, repurposed three 747s to put the mega aircraft together.

The huge aircraft can take off from any one of several US runways.

The Carrier’s six Pratt & Whitney engines and 28-wheel landing gear were originally designed for Boeing 747s. Credit: Stratolaunch

The Carrier is equipped with a total of 28 wheels, to evenly distribute its own weight and that of any extra launch vehicle payload.

In terms of total wheels’ comparison, an Antonov An-25 Mriya has 32 wheels, an Airbus A380-800 has 22 wheels, and a Boeing 747 has 18 wheels.

World record door

The Carrier’s enormous 103,256sqft hanger in the Mojave Air and Space Port in southeastern California features the widest garage door in the world.

According to Stratolaunch, the Carrier offers customers the flexibility to launch their vehicles at a timing of their mission convenience, with the added benefits of either full-capacity payload or rideshare with another payload customer. A single Carrier flight can thus serve multiple customers.

The Carrier’s enormous hanger at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Credit: Stratolaunch

The uniqueness of the Carrier for customers also lies in the fact that unlike fixed-range launches (ground-based) that generally require scheduling a few years or several months in advance, the mobile-launch (air-launch) platform offered by the Carrier can receive launch payloads a couple of days in advance of a flight – almost as easy as booking an airline flight ticket – meaning no undue delays for customers.

Convenient launches

The air-launch system also allows Stratolaunch to avoid traditional launch hazards, such as bad weather and conflicting fixed-range launches schedules that typically often result in costly delays and cancellations for customers.

Taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port the Carrier flew for 3 hours and 14 minutes at an altitude of 14,000ft, and a max speed of 178kts, as part of its second data-gathering shakeout cruise on May 1, 2021.

Mojave Air & Space Port is the epicentre for civilian aircraft development and flight test in the United States.

Credit: Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch Carrier wingspan in comparison to other large aircraft

Stratolaunch Carrier: 117.0m (384ft)

Hughes H4 Spruce Goose: 97.5m (320ft)

Antonov An-225 Mriya: 88.4m (290ft)

Airbus A380-800: 79.8m (262ft)

Boeing 747-8: 68.4m (224ft)

The giant twin-fuselage aircraft can take off from several US runways. Credit: Stratolaunch
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