Stratolaunch, owner of the world’s largest airplane, has announced a new research contract with the U.S. military to help develop hypersonic weapons.
President and COO Zachary Krevor told FLYING on Thursday the six-engined jet, nicknamed “Roc,” could begin its next set of test flights as soon as January in preparation to launch autonomous hypersonic test planes later in 2022. Hypersonic aircraft are designed to fly at least five times the speed of sound.
Roc made headlines in 2019 when it successfully conducted its first flight, becoming the world’s largest airplane in terms of wingspan—from wingtip to wingtip, it measures 385 feet. That’s longer than an American football field; wider than the wingspan of a Boeing 747-8 or Howard Hughes’ famed H-4 Hercules, aka the Spruce Goose.
The new military contract calls for Stratolaunch to provide “threat replication” for research by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to help scientists understand how to engage and intercept hypersonic threats.
Recently, U.S. military leaders have expressed concern about the capability of U.S. forces to defend against hypersonic weapons, which fly so fast that they could strike targets in the U.S. with little or no warning. The Pentagon has ramped up its hypersonic weapons research.
World’s Largest Airplane to Launch Hypersonic Aircraft
Krevor told FLYING that Roc and Talon-A —Stratolaunch’s new autonomous testbed aircraft under development—will help hypersonic weapons engineers develop a solution set to “counter this growing threat from peer competitors such as China.”
With contracts numbering “well into the double digits—both government and commercial agreements— there’s clearly a strong market for our services,” Krevor said.
Roc is a dual fuselage airplane with a center wing rated to support up to 500,000 pounds. Its engines, landing gear and some flight deck elements were salvaged from 747s.
After launching from Roc at flight levels similar to commercial airliners, Talon-A will fly to altitudes above 50,000 feet, where hypersonic testing conditions are ideal.
Two prototype Talon-As are being built at Stratolaunch’s facility in Mojave, California.
Because it will be autonomous, Talon will not be controlled from Roc or from the ground. It is designed to have the ability to adjust its flight profile based on its mission.
The first Talon-A hypersonic flight tests are scheduled to begin next year.
Created in 2011, the Stratolaunch company was the brainchild of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
After his untimely death in 2018, Stratolaunch’s parent company Vulcan sold it to Cerberus Capital Management the following year.
Roc will continue to undergo testing while engineers develop Talon-A. In fact, the massive jet is now being prepped for a new round of test flights, Krevor said.
“Just like everyone these days we’re certainly continuing to work through the trials and tribulations of the COVID pandemic, and so we anticipate flying again shortly after the new year.“