The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft nicknamed “Roc” rolled out of its facility in Mojave, California today smashing a 70-year-old record. It now holds the title of largest aircraft in the world measured by wingspan at 385 feet, a record previously held by the Herculus H-4 Spruce Goose at 320 ft in length. In comparison a Boeing 747-8 wingspan is 224 ft in length and the wingspan is longer than the Saturn V rocket is tall.

(source, wikipedia)

(source, wikipedia)

Starting in 2011, Stratolaunch Systems started to develop a new two-stage-to-orbit launch system. The goal is to reach 35,000ft with vehicle that has a capacity to carry a 500,000 lbs payload, in this case rocket(s), that can then be launched from the carrier vehicle into space.  Efficiency of standard jet propulsion is better than rockets in Earth’s atmosphere while above a certain speed and altitude, wings, air-breathing engines, or scramjets cease to be effective and rockets need to be used. The goal of this vehicle is a directly comparable to the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket being reusable. Reusability is the name of the game, and this might just be another way to make low Earth orbit cheaper and more accessible.

The Stratolaunch vehicle is expected to weight around 500,000 lbs with a max takeoff weight of 1,300,000 lbs and a payload capacity of 550,000 lbs. So what is next? A lot of testing! The earliest projection for a commercial flight is 2019 with a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle, according to Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch,

Over the coming weeks and months, we'll be actively conducting ground and flightline testing at the Mojave Air Space Port.. This is a first-of-its-kind aircraft, so we're going to be diligent throughout testing and continue to prioritized the safety of our pilots, crew, and staff. 

Ask your students, what other methods can you think of to lower the costs of reaching payloads into low Earth orbit?