The world's largest plane just achieved a major record

This could be the year it can begin offering hypersonic testing to customers.
Ameya Paleja
The Roc with Talon-A
The Roc with Talon-A

Stratolaunch 

Powered by its six engines, the world's largest plane, The Roc, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southeastern California on Friday morning to create yet another flight record for an aircraft its size, as it flew for a consecutive six hours before landing at the same airport, Space.com reported.

Built by Stratolaunch, The Roc is a carrier plane with a wingspan longer than a football field. However, the aircraft isn't a heavy cargo lifter but is being trialed to do something very different - serve as a platform for testing hypersonic payloads.

This is the ninth test flight for the company but was only the second test flight where it carried the Talon-A hypersonic test vehicle aloft, an important piece of its plans to begin hypersonic testing later this year.

What is Talon-A?

Talon-A is a rocket-powered reusable test vehicle that is 38 feet (8.5 m) long and has 11.3 feet (3.4 m) wingspan. The test vehicle sits on the pylon under The Roc's center wing, which boasts a fuselage and three jet engines on either side of the central wing and a total wingspan of 385 feet (117 m).

The Talon-A can be fitted with various research payloads, which can then be fired to travel at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10, while The Roc is cruising at altitudes of 35,000 feet (10,000 m). The test vehicle also has its own landing gear, which can be recovered on any conventional runway and reused again. Interestingly, the wide space of the central wing means that The Roc can carry up to three Talon-As at once.

The recently completed flight was a "captive-carry" test where the Talon-A was carried into the skies as part of the groundwork to drop from The Roc in future flights.

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Although the aircraft only traveled up to an altitude of 22,500 feet (6,860 m), it flew for a period of six hours, its longest flight so far. This is a massive improvement over The Roc's last flight with Talon-A, which had to be cut short just after 90 minutes, Interesting Engineering reported in June last year.

Hypersonic launches as a service

The recent success of the flight paves the way for Stratolaunch to take the next of its plan, the safe separation of its hypersonic flight. The company, which Microsoft co-founder launched, Paul Allen, designed The Roc to be able to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit, much like Virgin Orbit, after the plane had reached the Stratosphere.

However, the company's future came into doubt after its first-ever flight when Allen passed away. It was then acquired by Cerberus Capital Management, which began focusing on using it as a launch vehicle for hypersonic testing.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has contracted Stratolaunch through the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for hypersonic flight services. Per the contract, Stratolaunch will provide MDA with targets that mimic hypersonic threats, which will be used to improve and develop air defense systems.

With things going as per plan, Stratolaunch is expected to test the Talon-A next in its bid to provide services later this year.