The world’s biggest plane, boasting a 117-metre wingspan, has been launched by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The six-engine, dual-hulled Stratolaunch aircraft is designed to launch satellites into orbit. Launching the satellites on rockets while the Stratolaunch is in flight has the advantage of saving fuel comparing to sending them into orbit from a launchpad.
It is designed to carry a rocket and payload with a combined weight of up to 250,000 kg and when in development was expected to cost $300m – although whether it came in on budget has not been revealed.
Satellite networks, based on low-cost spacecraft, are the fastest-growing segment of the global satellite industry which reported more than $208bn in revenue in 2015, according to a Satellite Industry Association report.
The Stratolaunch was built by Scaled Composites and is similar in form and function to Scaled’s aircraft built to ferry spaceships into the air and release them for independent rocket rides beyond the atmosphere, a service Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic intends to offer to paying passengers.
There are no plans for the Stratolaunch to carry humans for business or research.
The twin-fuselage plane incorporates engines, landing gear, avionics and other parts from a pair of Boeing 747 jets coupled with a frame, wings and skin handmade of lightweight composites. It has 28 wheels.
The plane will be larger than Howard Hughes’ 1947 H-4 Hercules, known as the “Spruce Goose,” and the Antonov An-225, a Soviet-era cargo plane originally built to transport the Buran space shuttle that was the world’s largest aircraft.
It is not the first space venture by Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. His diverse business portfolio includes the SpaceShipOne project that sent fellow billionaires into space.
SpaceShipOne was the first privately built craft to enter suborbital space. It won Allen and his partners the Ansari X Prize, a competition with a $10m prize started by the X Prize Foundation to create the first private reusable spacecraft.
It has also served as the template for Branson’s Virgin Galactic. SpaceShipOne hangs next to the Spirit of St Louis in the Smithsonian’s Milestones of Flight gallery in Washington DC.