A retired 747-400 in front of the Scaled Composites hangar in Mojave (Credits: Scaled Composites).

The first of two retired 747-400 transport airliners procured by the newly-founded Stratolaunch Systems arrived at the Scaled Composites hanger in Mojave, California before moving to subcontractor BAE’s hangar for disassembly. Critical systems will be salvaged from tail number N196UA (purchased from United Airlines) and used in the construction of the carrier aircraft for Stratolaunch’s proposed air-launch system.

“The arrival of the first 747 aircraft in Mojave is extremely exciting for our team. This demonstrates Mr. Allen’s commitment to press forward with establishing a space transportation system that will change the way we currently perform space launch,” said Stratolaunch CEO and President Gary Wentz, referring to Paul Allen, founder of Stratolaunch.

Along with BAE, Scaled Composites will salvage the engines, landing gear, hydraulics, and other key systems from the aircraft and reassemble them into a custom composite airframe. A second retired 747-400 aircraft, also purchased from United Airlines, is slated to arrive at the Scaled Composites hangar later this month.

The three main components of the new air-launch system (Credits: Scaled Composites).

In order to carry the orbital portion of the system and the modified Falcon 9 rocket required to loft it into LEO, Scaled Composites must construct the largest aircraft (in terms of wingspan) in the world. The carrier “mothership” will use six of the 747’s turbofan engines to lift the 550-ton vehicle (including the 200-ton Falcon 9 booster stage), and will require a runway of 3.5 kilometers to takeoff.

Founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in December 2011, Stratolaunch Systems aims to partner Burt Rutan, Allen’s former colleague on SpaceShipOne, with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to create a revolutionary air-launched orbital launch vehicle. The purpose of the system is to increase the payload the Falcon 9 rocket can loft into orbit by launching it from high in the stratosphere, potentially reducing cost per mass of reaching orbit.

The video below shows an animation of the proposed Stratolaunch air-launch system.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh29Pm1Rrc0]

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Joel Spark

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Joel Spark is a Canadian space enthusiast currently working towards an MSc in Space Management at the International Space University near Strasbourg, France. He is driven by a passion for space systems engineering, particularly in applications involving the improvement of living conditions on Earth. He holds Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, with a specialty in structures, systems, and vehicle design.

  • http://thatspacedude.com That Space Dude

    This was an optimistic proposal when spacex was looked at as the rocket provider but since Elon Musk has indicated that the Falcon 9 is not going to be modified to use this method it has been in limbo while Paul Allen looks for another rocket vehicle. The Pegasus style launch system is a good method for reducing the weight of the initial stage but it has such a strong drawback in structural rigidity requirement that the increased structur grants only a limited increase over the standard launch method. I would have expected a more slender fuselage choice to increase the maximum loft from the turbine portion of the lift system but perhaps their were factors which indicated a larger frame would increase stability when carrying such a large payload. It would seem that the rocket portion of the lift system would wag the dog if it were too much larger than the turbine system. Since the Pegasus is quite a bit smaller it can use the Lockheed L1011. With the Falcon 9 they must have needed to scale up the ferry aircraft to overcome potential aerodynamic instabilities. I recall the USAF did laujnch an ICBM during testing using the massive C-5 Galaxy to airdrop it from the rear. Videos of this are still on youtube for those who enjoy exotic rocket videos. Since the C-5 is not available for civilian use the 747 would seem a good basis for a massive ferry vehicle. It is always exciting to see innovators breaking new ground and I hope Mr Allen does find a new rocket body for this project.