Tag Archives: Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch still lacks a launch vehicle

In a news interview today about their plans for the next year or so, the CEO of Stratolaunch danced around the lack of a committed and appropriate rocket to act as a second stage for the giant airplane.

At the first flight event, we are going to talk a little bit about what is our suite of product offerings in terms of launch vehicles. We haven’t really talked much about that up until this point, but once we get the plane flying, we want to reveal to everyone exactly what we’re talking about. We have talked about the Pegasus system [from Orbital ATK] and we are going to launch the Pegasus on our first launch. It’s a very small rocket, but it’s a very good rocket, very reliable, which is one of the reasons we want to launch that first.

But it’s a 50,000 pound rocket. This plane can carry 550,000 pounds, so it’s an undersized rocket for the capabilities we’re talking about.

They hope this first launch will occur by summer of this year.

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Stratolaunch to make first flight later this year

Capitalism in space: Paul Allen said at a space conference today that Stratolaunch will likely make its maiden flight later this year.

Actual satellite launches will have to wait until around 2020, however, as the giant plane will first have to be certified by the FAA, a process expected to take one and a half to two years.

The profitability of this launch system at the moment remains an unknown. The only rocket presently set to launch on Stratolaunch is Orbital ATK’s Pegasus, which is designed to launch small to mid-size satellites. Stratolaunch will therefore have to compete with the slew of new smallsat rocket companies that should be becoming operational in the next two years. It will be interesting to see if this air-launched system will be able to compete with them.

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Stratolaunch completes initial taxi tests

This past weekend Stratolaunch successfully completed its second series of taxi tests, reaching a speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour) as it moved down the runway.

[I]n December Stratolaunch capped off the year with a successful low-speed taxi test. During the taxi, the vehicle reached a top speed of 28 miles per hour (45 kilometers per hour) as it headed down the runway. Following the test, Aircraft Program Manager George Brugg stated, “This was another exciting milestone for our team and the program. Our crew was able to demonstrate ground directional control with nose gear steering, and our brake systems were exercised successfully on the runway. Our first low-speed taxi test is a very important step toward first flight.”

Last weekend, Sratolaunch kicked off 2018 with two days of additional taxi tests. Most notably, the tests included reaching the maximum taxi speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour). According to Allen, these tests allowed the team to “verify control responses.”

There is a tiny 35 second video of this last test at the link.

The article provides a lot of details about Stratolaunch and its future, including the suggestion that the giant airplane could become the main launch platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket. Pegasus presently has only one launch listed on its manifest, using its L1011 Stargazer airplane.

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Giant Stratolaunch plane conducts first taxi test

Capitalism in space: The giant Stratolaunch plane built out of two 747s completed its first taxi test yesterday.

Stratolaunch’s plane, nicknamed Roc, has the widest wingspan in the aviation world at 385 feet. That’s 50 percent wider than the wings of a Boeing 747 — which probably shouldn’t be surprising, considering that parts from two 747s went into building the plane. Mojave-based Scaled Composites aided in the fabrication of the plane’s carbon composite components.

I think a better way to illustrate the size of the wingspan is to note that if you laid a Saturn 5 rocket along those wings, it would not reach the tips at either end, being “only” 363 feet long.

Several experienced engineers at Behind the Black have previously wondered at whether the plane’s central structure holding its two fuselages together would be strong enough to provide a stable flight. Looking at the picture at the link, I must wonder the same thing.

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Stratolaunch tests engines on giant plane

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch announced today that it has successfully tested the six engines that will fly on the giant plane that it will use as a first stage.

This isn’t that big a deal, since the engines were built for the 747s that were scavenged by Stratolaunch to assemble their giant plane. If those engines didn’t work I would have been very surprised.

The most interesting part of this story is this:

Despite the plane’s giant size, Stratolaunch plans to initially use the aircraft as a platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket, which is currently launched from a much smaller L-1011 airplane. The Stratolaunch plane will ultimately have the ability to carry three Pegasus rockets that could be launched one at a time on a single flight. An initial launch, the company said in May, could take place as early as 2019.

A recent deal could combine two of Stratolaunch’s partners. Scaled Composites, who developed the aircraft for Stratolaunch, is owned by Northrop Grumman, which announced Sept. 18 a deal to acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion.

This might make Pegasus more affordable for smallsat launches, and provide those smallsat companies much greater launch flexibility. Moreover, the purchase of Orbital ATK by Northrop Grumman appears to work to the advantage of Stratolaunch.

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Stratolaunch unveils its giant mother ship

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today finally revealed the giant airplane, the largest ever built, that it wants to use as a first stage for launching satellites cheaply into space.

From their webpage:

Over the past few weeks, 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. This was a crucial step in preparing the aircraft for ground testing, engine runs, taxi tests, and ultimately first flight.

Once we achieved weight-on-wheels, it enabled us to weigh the Stratolaunch aircraft for the first time, coming in at approximately 500,000 lbs. That may sound heavy, but remember that the Stratolaunch aircraft is the world’s largest plane by wingspan, measuring 385 ft. – by comparison, a National Football League field spans only 360 ft. The aircraft is 238 ft. from nose to tail and stands 50 ft. tall from the ground to the top of the vertical tail.

The Stratolaunch aircraft is designed for a max takeoff weight of 1,300,000 lbs., meaning it’s capable of carrying payloads up to approximately 550,000 lbs. As we announced last fall , we will initially launch a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle with the capability to launch up to three Pegasus vehicles in a single sortie mission. We have already started preparations for launch vehicle delivery to our Mojave facilities. We’re actively exploring a broad spectrum of launch vehicles that will enable us to provide more flexibility to customers.

They plan to do ground tests throughout this year, aiming for a first flight test in 2019.

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Stratolaunch to fly in 2017?

The competition heats up: In an interview Paul Allen has revealed that he hopes to begin flight tests of his gigantic Stratolaunch airplane, the largest ever built, later this year.

No word on the rocket that this air-launched system would launch, however. In fact, it appears that no one seems interested in providing one. This could change once the plane is flying.

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Automated factory to build smallsats

The competition heats up: While this story focuses on the hiring of the former head of Stratolaunch by smallsat company York Space Systems, the real lead is how York is building an automated factory on a Denver college campus that will churn out smallsats.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

For more than a half century, satellites have been hand-made, each unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process. That is finally changing.

I should add that this hiring of Stratolaunch’s former president is another indication that Stratolaunch might be in trouble.

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Stratolaunch to use Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket

The competition heats up? Vulcan Aerospace and Orbital ATK announced today that they are renewing their partnership, using Pegasus in conjunction with Stratolaunch to put satellites into orbit.

Under a multiyear “production-based partnership,” the companies said, Orbital ATK will provide “multiple” Pegasus XL air-launch rockets to be used with the Stratolaunch aircraft, which, when completed, will have the largest wingspan of any plane ever built.

With the Pegasus XL rockets, the Stratolaunch aircraft will be able to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds, according to the firms’ joint statement released Thursday. Pegasus rockets already have done this kind of work: Orbital ATK has used them to launch satellites from the belly of its Stargazer aircraft.

This deal suggests to me that Vulcan Aerospace has a problem. It couldn’t find anyone to build a large rocket for Stratolaunch and this deal was therefore conjured up to paper over this problem. First , it appears that the reason Orbital ATK originally backed out was that they didn’t want to build the new rocket. Maybe they had engineering concerns. Maybe they were worried about cost or management. Regardless, they didn’t want to build it.

Second, using Stratolaunch with Pegasus seems pointless if the satellite weigh is still limited to only 1,000 pounds. That’s the payload capacity of Pegasus using Orbital ATK’s L-1011 Stargazer airplane. Why bother switching to Stratolaunch if the giant plane doesn’t give you any benefits?

Thus, it appears to me that what has happened is that Vulcan needed some rocket to use with Stratolaunch so that they could squelch the rising doubts about the company. This deal gives them that. It also probably gives Orbital ATK some extra cash to get them to agree to do it.

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Firefly shuts down

More details have been released by the shut down of operations at Firefly Space Systems.

They have furloughed all their employees, having lost one of their major investors. According to the company, the investor did not pull out because of the company’s litigation with Virgin Galactic, but because of its own internal considerations. The article also includes hints that Firefly might be one of the options that Vulcan Aerospace is looking at for building the rocket that its giant airplane Stratolaunch will launch.

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Stratolaunch loses top executive

Today it was revealed that Vulcan Aerospace, the company building Stratolaunch, is losing one of its top executives.

Aerospace veteran Chuck Beames is leaving his post as president of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s spaceflight company, Vulcan Aerospace. Word of Beames’ departure came from Allen in an internal email that was sent to Vulcan employees and obtained by GeekWire today. Allen said Jean Floyd, the CEO of Vulcan’s Stratolaunch Systems, will expand his role to become Vulcan Aerospace’s interim executive director as well.

Allen’s email, which you can read in its entirety at the link, also called Orbital ATK “a valued partner.” The last we had heard of this partnership, however, was that Orbital ATK had backed out of it. Allen’s email instead suggests that some renegotiations are going on, and the partnership is not quite dead.

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What is happening with Stratolaunch?

Doug Messier at his website Parabolic Arc today asks some pertinent questions about Stratolaunch and their seeming inability to settle on the rocket that will be launched from the giant plane they are building.

After going through SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the company talked to anyone and everyone with a rocket engine or an idea for one. They must have hit pay dirt with someone. [emphasis in original]

As Messier notes, both SpaceX and Orbital ATK have, in that order, made and then broke their partnership with Stratolaunch. Both companies were supposed to build that rocket, but for unknown reasons decided soon after that they couldn’t do this job. Stratolaunch has since been looking for a third company to build that rocket, but apparently has not found it. This information strongly suggests that the rocket companies found some fundamental engineering or management problems at Stratolaunch that scared them off. These same issues are also making it difficult for Stratolaunch to find a third rocket company.

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Stratolaunch three quarters complete

The competition heats up: Vulcan Aerospace now says that construction of its Stratolaunch airplane, the largest ever to fly, will be completed by the end of this year.

Assembly of the plane is 76 percent complete, with the engines, landing gear and one tail section still to be installed. The plane is expected to be finished before the end of the year. Commercial services are expected to begin before 2020.

They still have not determined the second stage rocket they will use with this mother ship to launch satellites, which leaves me increasingly skeptical about their future. It is very late in the game to still not know this detail.

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Problems at Stratolaunch?

In the heat of competition: Vulcan Aerospace, the company building the giant Stratolaunch airplane designed launch orbital rockets from its underbelly, does not yet have a rocket for this purpose.

Originally that rocket was to be built by SpaceX, but that partnership ended in 2012.

Stratolaunch then contracted out its rocket work to Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK). The company also contracted with Aerojet Rocketdyne for six RL10C-1 rocket engines with an option for six more for use in the launch vehicle’s third stage.

The agreement with Orbital ended without the production of a launch vehicle, with Beames saying the rocket was not economical. Stratolaunch officials said they were reassessing the project in light of the shift in the market recently toward smaller satellites.

In 2015, Beames said that Stratolaunch was examining more than 70 launch vehicles for use with the Stratolaunch aircraft. He indicated that the company might use multiple launch vehicles to serve different payload classes. Beames said the company would announce its launch vehicle strategy in fall 2015, but that time came and went with no announcement. [emphasis mine]

It is very worrisome for them to be hunting for a rocket at this point of design. I am reminded of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo, which changed engine designs midstream, causing them enormous engineering problems and delays.

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Stratolaunch shifts to the small sat market

The competition heats up: Even as Vulcan Aerospace, the company building the Stratolaunch air-launch system, considers its options for the second stage rocket that it will use, it has decided to shift its focus towards the small satellite market, including cubesats.

In a sense, they are now aiming at the same cubesat/smallsat market that Virgin Galactic wants with its LauncherOne air-launched rocket. Whether they can build a system cheap enough for these small satellites to afford, however, remains the big question. Their shifting focus, like Virgin Galactic’s, does not bode well for them.

Stratolaunch of Huntsville, Alabama, has already gone through two earlier iterations of its launch vehicle. When Stratolaunch unveiled its plans in December 2011, it planned on using a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Less than a year later, though, Stratolaunch announced it was ending that agreement because SpaceX wanted to focus on the standard version of its Falcon 9.

Stratolaunch then teamed with Orbital Sciences Corp., now Orbital ATK, to develop a launch vehicle. That rocket, called Thunderbolt, featured two solid-fuel stages provided by ATK and an upper stage powered by RL-10 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne. Like the earlier SpaceX design, Thunderbolt was designed to launch medium-class payloads.
Chuck BeamesChuck Beames. Credit: Vulcan Aerospace

Stratolaunch, though, has set that design aside as it seeks to launch smaller satellites, where the company sees a burgeoning market.

One wonders if the cost of building Stratolaunch will be more than this smallsat market can bear.

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Problems at Stratolaunch

In the heat of competition: Stratolaunch and Orbital ATK have quietly parted ways as problems have developed in building Stratolaunch’s giant first stage aircraft.

The company went with a radical engineering idea — using a giant airplane as their first stage — which might turn out great but could just as easily become a disaster and failure. Such ideas are by their nature filled with many unknowns.

In a sense, this story validates SpaceX’s approach to developing new space technology, which is to take known engineering and to upgrade it while refining the production methods for building it to lower costs. With this approach, you lower risks by reducing the number of unknowns you have to deal with.

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Stratolaunch considers multiple rockets for its giant airplane

The competition heats up: Stratolaunch is now considering widening its options for the upper stage that can be attached to its giant airplane.

[Chuck Beames, president of Seattle-based Vulcan Aerospace, the parent company of Stratolaunch Systems] said the interest in alternative launch options is driven by the growing interest in small satellites, for which the current Stratolaunch system is oversized. A smaller vehicle, he said, could be developed more quickly and less expensively. “It takes a more near-term focus on revenue generation,” he said.

Stratolaunch could eventually support several launch vehicles, he said, with varying payload capabilities to serve different customers. “We’ll likely have multiple launch vehicle options,” he said. “Some will be available earlier than others.”

It appears they are revising their launch system airplane into a modular design with a variety of upper stages, depending on customer. Note also the focus on the growing small satellite industry.

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Stratolaunch update

This article about Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch company notes that the payload the system will put in orbit is likely to be less than originally hoped.

Still to be determined are the manned and cargo craft Stratolaunch will eventually send to orbit or even the International Space Station, Beames said. Musk’s SpaceX, an initial partner, is no longer associated with the venture. The rocket produced by Orbital ATK Inc., which replaced SpaceX, will probably be smaller than the medium-lift vehicle with a 6,000 kilogram (13,000-pound) payload that Stratolaunch had initially planned, Beames said. “I think it’s more likely we’ll be targeting a smaller payload class,” Beames said. “We’re not announcing anything on that yet.”

Allen’s company, Vulcan Aerospace, is also demanding that ULA change the name of its new Vulcan rocket, just revealed yesterday.

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Stratolaunch airplane 40% complete

The competition heats up: Stratolaunch has revealed that construction of the gigantic airplane — the largest ever to fly — that will take its rockets into the air is now about 40% complete.

The first flight is still scheduled for 2016. The article also includes some good analysis which indicates the competitive problems Stratolaunch faces:

Its Orbital Sciences-supplied solid-fuel rocket will be able to carry 15,000 pounds to low Earth orbit. But this is about half the lift of the competing SpaceX Falcon 9 and just 30 percent that of a Boeing-built Delta IV. Stratolaunch will be able to orbit only smaller satellites.

Nonetheless, watching this mother-ship take off will be quite breath-taking.

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Stratolaunch and Sierra Nevada team up

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada and Stratolaunch have signed an agreement to use a 3/4 scale version of Dream Chaser as the manned vehicle launched by Stratolaunch’s giant first stage airplane.

The Dream Chaser is a reusable, lifting-body spacecraft capable of crewed or autonomous flight. Dream Chaser is the only lifting-body spacecraft capable of a runway landing, anywhere in the world. Stratolaunch Systems is a Paul G. Allen project dedicated to developing an air-launch system that will revolutionize space transportation by providing orbital access to space at lower costs, with greater safety and more flexibility.

As designed, the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human spaceflight system can carry a crew of three astronauts to LEO destinations. This versatile system can also be tailored for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation. The scaled crewed spacecraft design is based on SNC’s full-scale Dream Chaser vehicle which, for the past four years, has undergone development and flight tests as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

More information is expected to be released about this partnership at the International Astronautical Congress taking place in Toronto this week.

Summing up, however, this partnership is a blatant challenge to NASA’s Orion/SLS system as well as its its commercial crew capsules built by Boeing and SpaceX. Sierra Nevada and Stratolaunch are essentially telling the world that they are going to build their own manned reusable vehicle, and that it is going to be better than anyone else’s.

Oh how I love competition. It sure makes things happen quickly.

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Aerojet Rocketdyne has signed a contract to provide rocket engine’s for the upper stage of Stratolaunch’s air-launched rocket.

The competition heats up: Aerojet Rocketdyne has signed a contract to provide rocket engine’s for the upper stage of Stratolaunch’s air-launched rocket.

This company press release is packed full of new information about Stratolaunch’s rocket. For one, the entire package has been named the Eagles Launch System, with the air-launched upper stage called Thunderbolt. For another, they have a scheduled launch date set for 2018.

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Orbital Sciences intends to use an upgraded Antares rocket as its contribution to Stratolaunch.

The competition heats up: Orbital Sciences intends to use an upgraded Antares rocket as its contribution to Stratolaunch.

Part of the upgrades appear to be making sure Antares has an available replacement engine for the refurbished Soviet-era engines Antares is now using.

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Stratolaunch has now released some preliminary details about its commercial rocket, including images.

Stratolaunch has now released some preliminary details about its commercial rocket, including images.

Work has also begun on assembling the giant carrier airplane that will be used to take the rocket aloft.

Posted from lovely Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Tomorrow I will be busy visiting old friends as well as poking around an old Pennsylvania ghost town, so posting should be light.

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ATK has joined Stratolaunch, winning a contract to provide solid rocket motors for company’s proposed second stage air-launched rocket.

The competition heats up: ATK has joined Stratolaunch, winning a contract to provide solid rocket motors for company’s proposed second stage air-launched rocket.

Stratolaunch’s first stage will take off from a runway, and will be the largest airplane ever built. The second stage, which Orbital Sciences is building and which ATK is now be a partner, will be released from this airplane and then ignite.

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Stratolaunch officially announced today that Orbital Sciences will build the system’s second stage rocket.

The competition heats up: Stratolaunch officially announced today that Orbital Sciences will build the system’s second stage rocket.

The rocket that Orbital will build for Stratolaunch will launch from the air, the first stage being a giant airplane which will carry that rocket aloft, much like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and Orbital’s Pegasus rocket. Clark Lindsey at the same website also notes that the efforts of SpaceX (and to my mind Stratolaunch) to make the first stage reusable will likely revolutionize the rocket industry.

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New details about Stratolaunch, its gigantic carrier airplane, the largest ever built, and the rocket that it will carry.

New details about Stratolaunch, its gigantic carrier airplane, the largest ever built, and the rocket that it will carry.

Like SpaceX’s Grassshopper, the goal here is to make the first stage completely reusable, thereby reducing the cost of launch significantly.

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SpaceX and Stratolaunch have parted ways.

SpaceX and Stratolaunch have parted ways.

In the original plan, Stratolaunch would build the first stage, the biggest airplane every built, which would lift the second stage, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, into the air. It appears, however, that the modifications required to make the Falcon 9 work in this configuration were not in SpaceX’s interest, so the company backed out and Stratolaunch has instead made a deal with Orbital Sciences to provide the second stage rocket.

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