Stratolaunch teams up with Calspan and makes progress on hypersonic flight plan

Alan Boyle
·3-min read
Stratolaunch plane
Stratolaunch’s mammoth airplane sits on its runway. (Stratolaunch Photo)

Stratolaunch, the aerospace company founded by the late Seattle tech titan Paul Allen, is gearing up on several fronts for tests of its hypersonic launch platform — a year and a half after its mammoth airplane first flew.

Allen created the company in Seattle back in 2011 to launch rockets from the world’s biggest aircraft, but after the Microsoft co-founder’s death in 2018, the company was acquired by private investors. Since then, Stratolaunch has put increased emphasis on using the airplane as a platform for testing hypersonic vehicles.

Today, Stratolaunch announced that it’s partnering with an aerospace research and development company called Calspan to build and test models of its Talon-A hypersonic vehicle, a reusable prototype rocket plane.

Stratolaunch said that Calspan Systems, located in Virginia, will complete construction of the scale models late this year, and that one of the models will be tested early next year at Calspan’s Transonic Wind Tunnel in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Calspan is proud to continue our work with Stratolaunch and to provide them with data essential to understanding the performance of their Talon-A hypersonic testbed,” Calspan CEO Lou Knotts said in a news release.

Stratolaunch’s chief operating officer, Zachary Krevor, said that working with Calspan “accelerates our ability to safely launch fully operational hypersonic vehicles from our carrier aircraft.”

The carrier aircraft, which has been nicknamed Roc as a tribute to the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, is powered by six jet engines and has a wingspan of 385 feet — which is close to twice the wingspan of a Boeing 747.

Its only flight to date took place at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port in April 2019, but since then Stratolaunch has continued to work on the plane at its sprawling hangar in Mojave. The company’s development plan calls for the Talon-A and other rocket-powered vehicles to be launched from the plane in midflight.

Hypersonic flight tests are of particular interest because the U.S. military is racing to keep up with China and Russia on that arms frontier.

In a series of Twitter updates, Stratolaunch has been chronicling its progress toward the next phase of testing.

Stratolaunch fleet
Stratolaunch fleet

Get the specs: Take a look at the fact sheet for the hypersonic Talon-A and its carrier airplane

Last month, the company reported that it’s begun the process of manufacturing the carbon-composite fuselage for the Talon-A, and that it’s partnering with Draper on Talon-A’s flight software.

It’s also been keeping tabs on tests of the Ursa Major Tech rocket engine that will power the vehicle to speeds in excess of Mach 5, and has been putting clay models of the craft through tests at the University of Washington’s Kirsten Wind Tunnel.

Meanwhile, Stratolaunch is taking Roc out of its hangar for fueling tests and engine runs in preparation for the next flight test. Two weeks ago, Aviation Week reported that flights could resume in early 2021.

Stratolaunch has said it’s planning to put Roc and Talon-A into operation in 2022 — presumably for military test missions — but the timing depends on how the test program goes, and on other factors such as the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Stratolaunch will be featured of this week’s episode of the Science Channel’s “Impossible Engineering” series, airing at 7 p.m. PT Wednesday.

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