(CNN) – After years of development in the desert north of Los Angeles, a gigantic six-engine megajet with the scale of a football field still has not answered a question key: will he fly? Stratolaunch Systems, the company founded in 2011 by the late co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, did not say what it planned to do on the first test flight on the largest aircraft in the world.
However, the warning signs are imminent, with the completion, earlier this year, of tests for high-speed taxi on the runway, which, according to the company, would precede the original journey of the aircraft.
By and large, Stratolaunch aircraft are a giant flying launch pad designed to propel satellites into low Earth orbit. Its goal is to offer military, private companies and even NASA itself a more economical way to enter the space.
"Whatever the payload, regardless of the orbit, it will soon be as easy to place your satellite in the air as to book an airline flight," said CEO Jean Floyd, in 2018.
The wingspan of the aircraft is 385 feet – wider than any plane on the planet. From beginning to end, it is 238 feet long. He weighs half a million pounds. It's so big that it has two cockpits, one in each fuselage. (But only one will be used to fly the plane.)
"It's the biggest plane in the world. It's so huge that it looks like it should not be able to fly, "CNP aerospace photographer and launch photographer Jack Beyer told CNN on Thursday for NASASpaceFlight.com.
He is eager not only to see the thing fly, but also to witness the beginnings of the space industry's upward trend: using jets to launch satellites.
Last week at Mojave Air & Space Port, dozens of photographers, industry bloggers and aerospace enthusiasts gathered to watch the unique double fuselage plane, parked in front of his hangar.
"People are interested in the first flight of Stratolaunch because they want to see the future," said Beyer. "That's the same reason people look at Apple keynotes every year. People want to see what is the next step. "
A jet, carrying a rocket, carrying a satellite
Here's how Stratolaunch is supposed to work once the aircraft is tested and certified: the jet, carrying a rocket laden with satellite, will take off from Mojave and climb to an altitude of 35,000 feet. There, the pilots will launch the rocket from the plane on a trajectory towards space. The plane then lands in Mojave, while the rocket carries the satellite in an orbit ranging from 300 to 1,200 miles above the Earth. The rocket deploys the satellite before finally falling back to Earth, burning in the sky like a meteor.
Although the cost of the aircraft has not been made public, further details are known.
To make it strong and lightweight, Stratolaunch is made primarily of carbon fiber instead of aluminum. To save money on the design of new engines and landing gear, the jet is equipped with six Pratt & Whitney engines, originally designed for the Boeing 747s. Its landing gear, which includes 28 staggering wheels, was also designed for the 747.
Low Earth orbit satellites can provide broadband Internet communications and connectivity to isolated areas on the ground. They can perform valuable earth observation and monitoring work. The market for commercial satellite launch services is growing rapidly and is expected to reach $ 7 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights.
The launch of small space satellites by aircraft also promises to be less expensive than traditional rocket launches, eliminating the need for launch pads and all the expensive equipment and infrastructure surrounding a traditional rocket launch. .
It also saves fuel because the aircraft consumes less fuel than a traditional rocket when it takes off from the Earth.
Other benefits: Bad weather will not be a problem. Storms can delay the launch of a traditional rocket, but a plane can simply take off and fly over bad weather – or all around – and then launch the satellite.
Launches could take place more frequently and in a shorter time. No more waiting for a slot to open on a spacecraft taking off from a traditional ground launching ramp.
Richard Branson Competition
But Stratolaunch has not even stolen yet. And it is already facing the competition of billionaire Richard Branson and his company Virgin Orbit. Its LauncherOne service wants to launch rockets carrying satellites from a customized Boeing 747-400 – which, unlike Stratolaunch, is a proven aircraft.
Virgin Orbit plans to make its first launch at Mojave Air & Space Port at some point in the middle of the year.
"We are on the right track to offer new launch opportunities to small satellites that have been waiting too long for space travel," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement on Wednesday.
The first test flight of the Stratolaunch could be imminent. In January, during one of the tests on the runways, the pilots almost brought the plane to take off. The video posted on the company's Facebook page showed that the nose was briefly lifted off the runway before the pilots began to slow down the plane.
The first Stratolaunch flight will present the company with new goals before it can start doing business. Pilots will have to test the jet several times before being able to check and certify it by the Federal Aviation Administration.
If all goes as planned, Stratolaunch said the plane is expected to launch its first satellite over the next year.