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Stratolaunch: SpaceX Out, Orbital in for Rocket Development

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

November 29, 2012

Stratolaunch: SpaceX Out, Orbital in for Rocket Development

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Space launch company, Stratolaunch has switched its rocket development efforts, with Orbital Sciences Corporation replacing SpaceX (News - Alert) in providing an air-launched rocket for Stratolaunch's massive airplane. The switch appears to be amicable for all parties.

"Stratolaunch and SpaceX have amicably agreed to end our contractual relationship because the current launch vehicle design has departed significantly from the Falcon derivative vehicle envisioned by SpaceX and does not fit well with their long-term strategic business model," said Gary Wentz, Stratolaunch CEO, in an e-mail to Flight International.  "Moving forward, Stratolaunch has engaged Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation to evaluate and develop alternative solutions with the objective of arriving at a design decision in the early spring timeframe. The other segment contractors will continue to proceed forward in accordance with existing plans since their interfaces have been defined."

SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk hinted that a relationship change between his company and Stratolaunch was in the works when he spoke at the British Aeronautical Society on November 16, 2012. During a private 16 minute interview, available here, Musk said the project was "not one of our main initiatives, there's like to be some changes."

The split apparently comes about due to changes in the Stratolaunch aircraft that in turn would have required SpaceX to make significant manufacturing changes to produce a suitable Falcon rocket core for air launch from the vehicle. Standardized and mass produced Falcon cores are one of SpaceX's mantras to drive down the cost of launch. Building a heavily customized version of the Falcon for Stratolaunch apparently will be too much of a diversion.

Orbital will evaluate multiple concepts using both new and existing components for Stratolaunch. Orbital is uniquely qualified to work with Stratolaunch due to its experience in building and launching the Pegasus air-launch vehicle from a modified Lockheed L-1011. The solid-rocket multi-stage Pegasus has flown 40 missions between 1990 and 2012 and is capable of putting up to 980 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit (LE).

Stratolaunch, however, dwarfs Pegasus. The carrier, currently under construction, will be the largest aircraft ever built, with six Boeing (News - Alert) 747 jet engines and a wingspan of more than 380 feet. Design goals for the rocket include the capability of putting up to 13,500 pounds of payload into LEO, including satellites and potentially manned spacecraft.

One concept that is likely to bubble to the surface is a version of Orion's Antares rocket. The two stage Antares is scheduled to make its first flight from Wallops Island, VA early in 2013, followed by a demonstration mission for delivering supplies to the International Space Station. Antares uses a liquid-fueled first stage in combination with a solid-rocket second stage, so I wouldn't at all be surprised to see Orbital propose a (big) solid stage rocket.   

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO Miami 2013, Jan 29- Feb. 1 in Miami, Florida.  Stay in touch with everything happening at ITEXPO (News - Alert). Follow us on Twitter.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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