This is not a fantasy project. This is going to be real: a gigantic 385-foot wing span, 544-tonne plane powered by six 747 engines that will serve as a flying launch platform for 490,000 pound orbital rockets.
It's the new project of Paul Allen and Burt Rutan. And it looks insanely amazing.
Update: press conference is now finished. Here's all the info:
How does it work?
The new design works similarly to Rutan's previous designs.
The giant mothership, which brings memories of the giganormous Howard Hughes' H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose", will take SpaceX rocket launchers up to the stratosphere. From there, the mother ship will drop the rocket, which will fire up into orbit. The rocket will be able to deliver a total of 13,500 pounds of cargo up to orbit, including manned spaceships.
The airplane has a range of 1,300 nautical miles.
The rocket will be a Falcon IV-derived ship. SpaceX is now working on the kind of fins that will get the rocket
Why a flying launch platform?
According to the company, it will save everyone a lot of money. It will minimize the cost of the launch and minimize risks. They claim it will be more energy efficient and it will not depend as much on weather constrains as traditional launch methods.
Stratolaunch Systems' CEO Gary Wentz—a former chief engineer of science and mission systems at NASA—thinks this system will "revolutionize space travel." They also claim that, with this system, they will be able to offer human flights at a lower price point than what the Russians are currently charging NASA.
Where will it be built?
The ship will be built at the Mojave Spaceport, California, while the rockets will be built by SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. The integration—which includes the mating system—will be built by Dynetics Space Systems in Huntsville, Alabama.
What cargo will it launch?
Initially, they will launch cargo to orbit, but not to the International Space Station. In the future, the system may launch human crews up to six people. At this point, however, they haven't decided to do this yet.
When will it launch?
The project is close to the building phase. They have detailed structural analysis and plans. They also have engines and off-the-shelf components.
They want to start testing in 2015 and launch the first rocket on 2016.
Who is behind this project?
Paul G. Allen is the Microsoft founder, hyperbillionaire and investor on many weird and wonderful ventures, including the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array and SpaceShipOne, the ship that made the first private suborbital flight.
Rutan built that ship, as well as its mothership, WhiteKnightOne and the 2.0 versions for Virgin Galactic: WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. He is the legendary aircraft designer and founder of Scaled Composites, now located at the Mojave Spaceport, California.