Stratolaunch has found another use for the biggest airplane ever built.
The company, which Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen established in 2011, originally planned to launch satellites using the aircraft, which has a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters). But Allen died in October 2018 and Stratolaunch was sold last year, raising questions about the company's future.
Some of those questions have now been answered. Stratolaunch's website now reveals that the company has reinvented itself as a builder, tester and operator of hypersonic vehicles — those that can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5.
"Our hypersonic testbeds will serve as a catalyst in sparking a renaissance in hypersonic technologies for our government, the commercial sector and academia," Stratolaunch CEO W. Jean Floyd said in a statement on the company website.
The huge plane is key to this new mission, hauling vehicles aloft to test various payloads in the extreme environments imposed by hypersonic flight. Those vehicles will include Stratolaunch's Talon-A, a 28-foot-long (8.5 m), 6,000-lb. (2,722 kilograms) reusable craft capable of reaching Mach 6.
Talon-A "will conduct long-duration flight at high Mach, and glide back for an autonomous, horizontal landing on a conventional runway," Stratolaunch's description of the craft states. "It will also be capable of autonomous takeoff, under its own power, via a conventional runway."
The huge dual-fuselage plane — which used to be called Roc, but is now apparently known as the Stratolaunch Carrier — will be able to haul three Talon-As aloft at a time, allowing the collection of lots of data, company representatives said.
Talon-A isn't the end of the envisioned road for Stratolaunch, however. The company is also developing the Talon-Z, about which it divulges little on the website, and another vehicle called Black Ice, which could end up flying some very interesting and ambitious missions, if everything goes according to Stratolaunch's plan.
"Black Ice is a fully reusable space plane that enables advanced on-orbit capabilities and cargo return," the company's website reads. "Initial designs optimized for cargo launch, with a follow-on variant capable of transporting crew."
Black Ice doesn't come completely out of left field. In August 2018, before Allen's death, Stratolaunch announced plans to use four different satellite-launching vehicles with the huge aircraft, including an orbital space plane.
The Stratolaunch Carrier has just one flight under its belt, a 2.5-hour test flight that took place in April 2019.
- Stratolaunch images: Paul Allen's giant rocket-launching plane
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.