This is the Stratolaunch. With a wingspan of 385 feet, the special plane is now the largest in the world. Don't expect to see it at your local airport though. This craft has a more important purpose than transporting people: It launches hypersonic rockets.
Why is everyone talking about this plane, which just got a brand new owner? Take a closer look at it, and you'll soon see for yourself...
By the numbers, the Stratolaunch -- code name "Roc" -- is the largest plane ever built. Its wings measure 385 feet across, longer than a professional football field. Its twin fuselages are 238 feet long, while its tail height is 50 feet.
As such, it had to be constructed here at the Mojave Air and Space Port, inside a specially constructed 88,000-square-foot hangar.
Next up: The Stratolaunch's first-ever rocket launch
Of course, there are many milestones yet for the Stratolaunch to achieve.
"Stratolaunch is exploring the development of aerospace vehicles and technologies, including the needs for reliable, routine access to space," Stratolaunch spokesman Art Pettigrue told SpaceNews. "This exploration inlcudes the need to significantly advance the nation's ability to design and operate hypersonic vehicles."
This graphic shows possible operation of the Stratolaunch. The plane first carries a rocket to an altitude of roughly 35,000 feet. The rocket then separates from the plane and engages its own engines to continue its climb.
For its first launch, the Stratolaunch will likely carry a single Pegasus XL rocket, built by Orbital ATK. The craft is designed, however, to carry as many as three of these between its twin fuselages.
Many of the systems of the Stratolaunch were borrowed from Boeing 747-400 planes in the most literal sense. Engineers cannibalized the engines, avionics, flight decks and landing gear of two such planes during the building process, including the one shown here.
This is what the Stratolaunch's cockpit looks like
This is the inside of a Boeing 747-400, showing you what the cockpit of the Stratolaunch looks like. The record-breaking plane is designed to operate under a three-person crew: the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.
Published:Caption:Fox Van AllenPhoto:Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty Images
During the building process
Once the Stratolaunch has proved itself in testing, the craft is expected to participate in six to 10 missions per year.
Meet Paul Allen, the man originally behind the plane
This is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan created Stratolaunch Systems on Dec. 13, 2011, to develop a new air-launch-to-orbit system that could revolutionize space transportation.
When you're the sole financier of a plane, you're allowed to climb this high for a photo op.
"It is a big initial fixed investment to get this going," Allen said when announcing the project in 2011. "But you have a certain number of dreams in your life that you want to fulfill, and this is a dream that I'm very excited about seeing come to fruition."
A paper presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2018 conference detailed Stratolaunch's interest in air launching hypersonic experimental vehicles, such as the Mach 10 Hyper-Z, seen here.
Under old ownership, Stratolaunch discontinued development of the Hyper-Z in early 2019. In February 2020, Stratolaunch spokesperson Art Pettigrue told CNET that the Hyper-Z "may, or may not, reflect our future direction."
"Stratolaunch is exploring the development of aerospace vehicles and technologies, including the need for reliable, routine access to space," Pettigrue told SpaceNews in January 2020. "This exploration includes the need to significantly advance the nation's ability to design and operate hypersonic vehicles."
"We have removed the fabrication infrastructure, including the three-story scaffolding surrounding the aircraft, and rested the aircraft's full weight on its 28 wheels for the first time," said Stratolaunch Systems CEO Jean Floyd. "This was a crucial step in preparing the aircraft for ground testing, engine runs, taxi tests and, ultimately, first flight."
Allen's motivations for building and financing the Stratolaunch were made clear in a 2016 statement.
"When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine," he wrote. "That's the thing about new platforms: when they become easily available, convenient and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts."
The Stratolaunch is being tested at the Mojave Air and Space Port, located in California's Mojave desert. It's the first facility to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration as a "spaceport" to support reusable spacecraft.
Of course, the Stratolaunch isn't the only strange private spacecraft at the Mojave Space Port. Check out the Rotary Rocket, an odd private launch vehicle from the late 1990s that was powered by a helicopter-like rotary blade. It made three successful hover flights in 1999.
The Rotary Rocket Company ultimately ran out of funds and was abandoned in 2001.
This is neither Rutan's (left) nor Allen's first attempt at creating a commercially viable aircraft. The duo teamed up over a decade ago to build SpaceShipOne at the Mojave Space Port, the first privately built and piloted reusable vehicle to reach space.
That ship is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.