A new family of Stratolaunch vehicles being developed to expand competition
New launch service providers such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit and Rocket Labs are grabbing up market share. In terms of competition, more is always better in terms of driving costs for these services down – enter Stratolaunch.
Stratolaunch was founded by the late Paul Allen and is looking to carve out a share of the market for its own launch system.
Stratolaunch recently announced three new launch vehicles that could expand their capabilities for launching larger payloads and perhaps even people to orbit.
All of the new vehicles are being designed to use the Stratolaunch aircraft to carry them to an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet (about 11 kilometers) and from launch points virtually anywhere around the world. Once reaching the required altitude, they will be released to complete the remainder of the journey under their own power.
The Stratolaunch aircraft is no lightweight. The massive carrier airplane is powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines, the same engines used to power Boeing’s 747 fleet. It is the only aircraft currently in service with a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters) across. This fact alone makes the Stratolaunch carrier the largest aircraft, by wingspan, ever to fly.
It utilizes other flight proven Boeing 747 systems that include the landing gear, avionics, and flight controls. This use of well-known systems were incorporated to insure reliability. The airframe itself is made mostly of composite material and was built by Scaled Composites. This is the same company that also built SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft to fly crew to the edge of space, as well as its carrier aircraft – White Night One. White Knight One carried SpaceShipOne to 49,000 feet (15 kilometers) in altitude before releasing it. With the experience gained in producing White Knight One in hand, the Scaled Composite team is now working to carry out test flights of the mammoth Stratolaunch aircraft in the coming months.
Stratolaunch’s three new launch vehicles, along with the existing Pegasus booster, should be able to service a wide variety of customers’ missions and budgets as they will be designed to accommodate different sized payloads.
“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. Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight,” Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s Chief Executive Officer Jean Floyd stated via a release.
The first operational flight of the Stratolaunch system is currently slated to take place in 2020 and will utilize the existing Pegasus launch vehicle. Pegasus has been used on more than 35 successful launches to date – from two different aircraft. Developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) it should be able to carry payloads weighing up to a 815 lbs (370 kg) to orbit when launched from Stratolaunch. The Stratolaunch airplane is designed to be capable of carrying up to three Pegasus vehicles allowing for multiple launches to different orbits and orbital inclinations during a single flight.
The first of the three newly-announced launch vehicles is the Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) which has a launch capability much larger than Pegasus. It should be able to carry a payload weighing up to 7,495 lbs (3,400 kg). The MLV is currently in development and is slated to make its first flight sometime in 2022.
Moving up the capability scale reveals the next newly-announced launch vehicle, the MLV Heavy. Built on the same platform as the MLV, it’s a three-core variant capable of carrying up to 13,227 lbs (6,000 kg) to orbit. This version of the MLV is in the early stages of its development with no launch date currently on manifest.
The final new launch vehicle is simply dubbed the Space Plane. As the name implies, it is meant to be a reusable shuttle capable of flying either crewed or cargo missions – before returning safely to Earth. Initial designs will be optimized for cargo launches with crew variants planned to be brought into service at a later date.
Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.