A space launch company bankrolled by Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen intends to compete with space entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts by launching satellites into orbit from the world's biggest airplane.
Stratolaunch Systems, a unit of Allen's privately owned Vulcan Aerospace, last week gave a small group of reporters a first look at the nearly finished aircraft.
With a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m), the six-engine 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 is currently the world's largest aircraft.
Allen's move coincides with a surge of new businesses planning to sell Internet access, Earth imagery, climate data and other services from networks of hundreds of satellites in low-altitude orbits around Earth.
But his vision is different from what Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and other companies have for building commercial highways to space.
Musk's goal is to fly people to Mars. Bezos is developing low-cost, reusable rockets with the goal of moving energy-intensive, heavy industry off Earth. Branson is focused on space tourism and a small satellite launcher.
The advantage of Allen's approach will be the ability to position the plane so satellites can be directly delivered into very precise orbits and do so quickly, without launch range scheduling issues and weather-related delays, Chuck Beames, who oversees Allen's space ventures, said.
The Stratolaunch plane looks nothing like its behemoth predecessor aircraft. Rather than transporting heavy cargo inside a main body section, Stratolaunch is a twin-fuselage craft that 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.
Designed and built by Northrop Grumman Corp's Scaled Composites, the plane 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.