Stratolaunch gets bigger rockets to launch satellites from the sky

Stratolaunch Systems, the company of Microsoft founder Paul Allen, plans to develop two new rockets and a spacecraft that will eventually launch the huge six-engine Stratolaunch plane. The new rockets are significantly larger than the Pegasus rocket.

Stratolaunch Systems will develop, among other things, the Medium Launch Vehicle, a rocket that should be ready to be used for launches from 2022. The rocket must be able to put 3500kg of cargo into low Earth orbit. In addition, a heavier variant is being developed, the Medium Launch Vehicle – Heavy. The development of this rocket, which can bring a payload of up to 6000 kg into low Earth orbit, is still in an early phase.

Finally, Allen’s company is studying how to create a reusable spacecraft, the Space Plane. This device looks a bit like a small version of the Space Shuttle and may be codenamed Black Ice. The Space Plane should not only carry cargo like the other two, new rockets; the spacecraft also has undisclosed “advanced capabilities” intended to be used in orbit, the company said. This probably involves at least performing certain maneuvers in space.

So far, the company has already conducted tests with the existing Pegasus, a rocket from Orbital ATK, acquired by Northrop Grumman. A slightly larger variant of the Pegasus rocket can put roughly 450kg into low Earth orbit. The idea is that the Pegasus, the new rockets and the Space Plane, while suspended under the wing of the Stratolaunch aircraft, are raised to an altitude of 10 kilometers and then fired. Allen hopes this will be a cheaper way to get satellites into low Earth orbit than the traditional method of a launch vehicle like SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The Stratolaunch plane has yet to make its first official flight; it is still unclear when exactly that will take place. It is the largest aircraft in the world based on the wing span of 117 meters. In March a speed of 74 km/h was achieved while taxiing and in 2017 all six engines were ignited during a test. These tests are important, as the massive 540,000kg aircraft needs a runway of at least 3.7km to get airborne.