Sending aviation and aerospace engineers’ pulses racing, the widest aircraft ever built has been unveiled in Mojave, California.
The Stratolaunch aircraft was funded by billionaire Paul G. Allen in 2011. Allen and Burt Rutan founded the company, Scaled Composites, which is behind the build. They are concerned with making access to space ‘more convenient, reliable, and routine’.
The plane’s wingspan stretches to 385 feet (117 meters), stretching further than a football field, the world’s biggest airplane. According to Composite Manufacturing Magazine, 300 engineers and fabricators were involved in the design and the manufacturing of the plane.
“Utilizing six Boeing 747 engines for a payload capacity of over 500,000lbs and an operational range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles, Stratolaunch is capable of delivering payloads to multiple orbits and inclinations in a single mission,” Allen said.
The hope is that the plane will be able to go into low earth orbit (LEO) and be useful for firing rockets into space that will launch satellites. Stratolaunch will also be an experiment in “normalizing access to LEO’ for ‘commercial, philanthropic, and governmental’ purposes. Thus, fuel, ground and flight testing will be performed. The first full launch demonstration will commence in 2019.
The fuselage to the left of the plane is for the aircraft’s crew, whereas the other fuselage is specifically for housing the flight data systems.
The twin-fuselage future of aircraft is not a new concept, the North American XP-82 Twin Mustang is a famous example of an aircraft with a twin-fuselage that entered production at the end of World War 2, and saw some action in the Korean War. However, they have become more uncommon since then.
In 2011, NASA did, however, predict that a commercialized twin-fuselage aircraft would be available by 2025. Six years ago they had awarded Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the Boeing Company contracts that allowed them to develop concept designs for the specific purpose of launching new ‘modernized’ aircraft in 2025. NASA tasked the engineering companies with lowering the noise of their aircraft by 85%, and encouraged a larger focus on minimizing nitrogen oxide emissions and increased reduction of greenhouse gases.
In 2014, NASA tested their Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept that, much like the Stratolaunch, is to be used as a rocket/satellite firing aircraft. However, what makes Stratolaunch different is the use of 747 engines that will propel the aircraft, whereas NASA’s initial concepts required a tow-plan to launch its twin-fuselage aircraft into the sky.
Conner, Monroe. "Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept." NASA. NASA, 01 July 2015. Web. 08 June 2017.
Milberg, Evan. "Scaled Composites Completes Test of Stratolaunch, the World's Largest Composite Aircraft." Composites Manufacturing Magazine. 01 June 2017. Web. 07 June 2017.