Stratolaunch sends world’s largest aircraft on second test flight

Stratolaunch’s Roc carrier plane flies over California’s Mojave Desert. (Stratolaunch via Twitter)

Stratolaunch, the aerospace company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, put the world’s largest plane through its second flight test today, two years after the first flight.

“We are in the air!” Stratolaunch reported in a tweet.

Today’s liftoff from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time that the aircraft, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird in Arab and Persian mythology , has taken off since the acquisition of Stratolaunch by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc climbed to 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes – which is almost an hour longer than the first flight of the April 13, 2019. During this previous flight, the aircraft reached a top speed of 189 mph and a maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Zachary Krevor, chief operating officer of Stratolaunch, said today’s flight met all of its test targets by verifying the performance of improved instrumentation, a more robust flight control system and ‘an environmental control system that allowed pilots to work in a pressurized cockpit. Krevor said the crew included Chief Pilot Evan Thomas, Pilot Mark Giddings and Flight Engineer Jake Riley.

The hottest moment of the flight came on touchdown, when one of the mammoth plane’s landing gears adjusted the runway while the other was still in the air. “We originally landed on a report, but that’s exactly the technique we prefer to use when landing in a crosswind,” Krevor told GeekWire on a post-landing teleconference. “Although we stayed within our crosswind limits, we did have a bit of crosswind, and the crew did a great job bringing down the plane.”

Since Roc’s first flight in 2019, the 10-year-old company’s business model has changed: During its early years, Stratolaunch focused on using Roc as a flying launch pad to send rockets and their payloads in orbit. The concept capitalizes on the air launch system launched by SpaceShipOne, which has secured financial support from Allen and won the $ 10 million Ansari X award in 2004,

The new owners still plan to use Roc for the aerial launch, but the current focus is on using the aircraft as a test bed for Stratolaunch’s hypersonic flight vehicles. regular operations, maybe next year, Stratolaunch could start launching its Talon- A prototype hypersonic aircraft.

David Millman, chief technology officer of Stratolaunch, said the company plans to build three hypersonic vehicles. He said this should pave the way for hypersonic testing at least once every 17 days, matching the pace of the X-15 rocket plane’s flights in the 1960s,

Hypersonic flight at five times the speed of sound is a big problem for military applications. Russia and China are reportedly working on hypersonic weapon systems, and the US military is keen to keep pace. Stratolaunch expects its technology to be in the Pentagon’s plans.

“This is exactly one of the areas that we are looking at: How can we help the Defense Department mitigate the risk for all of its extensive flight tests,” Millman told GeekWire.

Millman said Stratolaunch’s Talon test rig would be able to carry payloads, test materials, and fly a variety of profiles that can help the Pentagon determine the characteristics of hypersonic flight before performing full-fledged expensive flights of its own hypersonic vehicles.

“What we’re doing is providing a way for them to test a lot of their technologies in a simpler, repeatable, useful way so that they can access their global tours much faster,” said Millman.

Stratolaunch has not ruled out possibly pursuing other applications for its launch system, including sending payloads of satellites and crewed space planes into orbit.

Hadley engine for Stratolaunch Talon-A
Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic vehicle is expected to use Ursa Major Technologies’ Hadley rocket motor, shown in the foreground. The airframe structure of a Talon-A prototype designed for flight separation testing is visible in the background. (Photo Stratolaunch)

Other companies, including Virgin Orbit, are also working on next-generation air launch technology. Such systems promise greater versatility and faster response time for launching payloads, as carrier planes can take off from a wide variety of runways, fly over inclement weather, and theoretically launch their payloads into no. any desired orbital tilt.

Stratolaunch’s twin-fuselage, six-engine Roc aircraft is in a class of its own, thanks to its world-record wingspan of 385 feet. By comparison, the wingspan of the modified Boeing 747 that Virgin Orbit uses reaches 211 feet. The previous record holder was the Spruce Goose, a prototype seaplane that debuted in 1947 and had a wingspan of 320 feet. Built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, Roc has the capacity to carry over 500,000 pounds of payload.

This is an updated version of a report first released at 10:31 a.m. PT on April 29.

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