Reaching for the Stars in Mojave


Two space access projects are making significant progress at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Stratolaunch Systems, a Paul Allen project, has officially opened its production facility -- an 88,000 square foot site that will be used to build the enormous composite wing and fuselage sections of its proposed carrier aircraft. Not far away another large hangar building that will house the 385-ft span launcher aircraft is also nearing completion.

Stratolaunch Systems’ hangar comes together (Guy Norris)

Another angle on the hangar sized to accommodate a 385-ft span vehicle (Guy Norris)

Construction of the carrier aircraft is due to begin “within the calendar year” says Stratolaunch which plans to launch a modified SpaceX booster into low earth orbit from a release altitude of around 30,000 ft. The aircraft, powered by six engines donated by two ex-United Airlines Boeing 747-400s, is being designed and built by locally-based Scaled Composites. Weighing in at around 1.2 million lbs, the twin-boom vehicle will use many of the systems from the two donor 747s and will be the largest aircraft ever built. The SpaceX booster will be connected to the launcher with a mating and integration system developed by Dynetics.

The Stratolauncher carrier aircraft (Stratolauncher)

Just down the flight line Scaled Composites is also moving closer to the start of powered flight tests of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo with the installation of major elements of the rocket system, including the main oxidizer tank. Photographs released by Virgin Galactic on Oct 19, show the large nitrous oxide tank being lowered into position in the center of the SS2.

The oxidizer tank is lowered into position in SS2 (Virgin Galactic)

The tank will feed the Sierra Nevada-developed RM2 hybrid rocket motor that will power the vehicle to sub-orbital altitudes at speeds in excess of Mach 3. Virgin Founder Richard Branson also tweeted on Oct 19 that “space doesn’t look too far away,” and in his blog referred to the extended build-up approach to the start of flight tests which are widely expected to begin later this quarter. “The greatest successful adventures are always built on meticulous preparation, which is why we’re leaving no stone unturned as we approach the first supersonic, rocket-powered flights of SpaceShipTwo.”

The tank forms part of the structure when installed. (Virgin Galactic)

Installation of the tank, with the RM2 presumably not far behind, follows a 17th full-scale hot fire test of the RM2 on Sept 20. Scaled Composites says the test “continued evaluation of all systems and components, including pressurization, valve/injector, furl formulation and geometry, nozzle, structure and performance." The start of RM2 installation follows the completion of aerodynamic tests of the unpowered SS2 earlier this summer. That milestone, which was achieved by late August, effectively kept the sub-orbital spacecraft on track for the start of rocket-powered flights by the November to December timeframe. Virgin Galactic hopes that, pending a successful powered test campaign, it will be able to start passenger flights by the end of 2013.

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