The world’s largest airplane took its first flight early Saturday. The Stratolaunch, a six-engine, twin-fuselage behemoth with a 385-foot wingspan, took off from Mojave after years in development. The aircraft was conceived by Paul Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan as an aerial launch platform for low Earth orbit satellites that will reduce launch costs substantially. The aircraft is designed to take rockets weighing as much as 400,000 pounds to 35,000 feet for launch and will tap into the burgeoning market for communications, reconnaissance and broadband satellites being put between 300 and 1,200 miles in altitude. It’s hoping for a first launch in 2020.
As Stratolaunch embarks on the long and costly certification process for the aircraft, Virgin Orbit is preparing to launch a competitive service using the long-established Boeing 747-400 as its platform. Although the jumbo jet won’t carry as much as the Stratolaunch, it’s still able to serve a significant slice of the market for small satellite launches and it expects to be in business by the middle of this year. “We are well on our way towards providing new launch opportunities for small satellites that have waited too long for their ride to space,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said Wednesday in a statement.