Roc, the world's largest plane, broke its own altitude record to soar the highest it has ever flown during the recently concluded test at the Mojave Desert airstrip in California. The plane's maker Stratolaunch also confirmed the successful testing of a few more components during this flight in a press release.
Back in 2019, we reported that Stratolaunch's future was in doubt following Roc's first flight after the company's founder Paul Allen passed away. Microsoft co-founder Allen started the company with the aim of launching satellites into the low-Earth orbit while the plane was in the stratosphere, something Virgin Orbit demonstrated in early 2021.
A couple of years under new ownership, Stratolaunch pivoted just enough to steer away from smaller satellites, launching hypersonic research vehicles instead. Late last year, the company struck a deal with the U.S. Department of Defense to conduct hypersonic flight tests for the military and is now moving closer to its goal.
The Roc and the Talon-A
With a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m), the Roc is currently the largest plane in the world. Boasting six Boeing engines, the aircraft has two fuselages connected by a center wing. With the company's plans to test hypersonic vehicles, a rocket-powered hypersonic test vehicle, dubbed Talon-A, has now been installed on the pylon of the center wing.
A reusable vehicle, the Talon-A has 11.3 feet (3.4 m) wingspan and is 38 feet (8.5 m) long. The launch vehicle can be fitted with a variety of research payloads which can then travel between speeds of Mach 5 - Mach 10, as we reported in December last year.
Over the next few months, the company has made some decent progress and recently clocked up its seventh flight.
Hiccups along the way
The journey has not been smooth, though. Earlier this month, during the sixth test flight, the Roc returned to the Mojave airstrip a mere 90 minutes after taking off, instead of the three and half hour flight that was originally scheduled, Space.com had reported. This was Roc's first flight with Talon-A installed, and the crew found out that they would not complete their test objectives, forcing them to return.
The next flight, however, was markedly better, with the team being able to validate the aircraft's general performance and handling with the pylon onboard as well as validation of the aircraft's landing gear operations, including door functionality and alternate gear extension, the company said in the press release.
The Roc also flew to an altitude of 27,000 feet (8,200 m) during the flight that lasted a minute over three hours. This is a major development from the 15,000 feet (4,572 m) that the aircraft had reached during its last flight. Talon A launches are designed to happen at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet (10,000 m).
"Today's flight is a success story of the Stratolaunch team's ability to increase the operational tempo to the pace desired by our customers for performing frequent hypersonic flight tests," said Dr. Zachary Krevor, Stratolaunch Chief Executive Officer and President.
Stratolaunch has also made progress on the separation test vehicle, TA-0, which will be tested later this year. Additionally, the first hypersonic test vehicle, TA-1, is moving towards system integration, and the TA-2, the reusable hypersonic vehicle is currently under fabrication, the company added in the press release.
Stratolaunch anticipates that it will launch hypersonic testing services for its customers in 2023.