Over the weekend, the largest aircraft in the world launched with a novel kind of cargo beneath its broad wings.
On Sunday, December 3, Stratolaunch’s Roc carrier plane made its first-ever captive-carry flight using a powered and fueled hypersonic test vehicle.
According to business representatives, the primary objective was to assess the propulsion system of that aircraft, which is the first robotic Talon-A craft built by Stratolaunch and is designated as TA-1, as well as to observe the vehicle’s overall behavior while in flight.
CEO of Stratolaunch Zachary Krevor stated in a statement on Sunday that “Talon-A’s propulsion system supports a liquid-propellant rocket engine that provides the thrust needed for Talon-A to reach hypersonic speeds.”
“While we have conducted several successful ground tests fueling and igniting the system, we needed to evaluate how the system performs in the flight environment prior to release,” he stated. “Initial results from today’s flight show that the system has performed as predicted, and we will determine our next steps pending the full data review of the test.”
Roc’s flight on Sunday was its 12th flight overall. Its wingspan is 385 feet (117 meters). The massive, twin-fuselage aircraft made its first-ever drop test with a Talon prototype in May of this year, when it last took to the air.
On Sunday’s sortie, which began at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California, Roc flew for three hours and twenty-two minutes. TA-1 did not detach from its carrier aircraft during the takeoff or landing phase.
In the same statement, business leaders stated that the flight “represented a significant step forward in the company’s near-term goal of completing a powered flight with the Talon-A vehicle.”
Paul Allen of Microsoft founded Stratolaunch in 2011. The original concept was to air-launch rockets from high altitudes in Earth’s atmosphere, in a manner similar to how Virgin Galactic uses its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane and VSS Unity spaceliner to transport guests into orbit.
However, the company’s priorities changed in 2019, a year after Allen passed away, and it now plans to employ Roc as a platform for hypersonic research and development. (Hyperbolic vehicles are extremely nimble aircraft that can travel at least five times the speed of sound.)
Though more are planned, the reusable Talon-A craft will be the first in Stratolaunch’s family of hypersonic vehicles. The company’s website also hinted at a space plane and a Talon+ vehicle.
A few clients have already signed up with Stratolaunch for its hypersonic services. For instance, the business disclosed last week that it had inked a deal with Leidos, the prime contractor for the Multiservice Advanced Capability Test Bed (MACH-TB) of the U.S. Navy. Five hypersonic flights using Talon-A vehicles are funded by the agreement.