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Stratolaunch takes hypersonic flight dreams to new heights with mid-air release success

Paul Allen must be smiling up there ahead of test flight in summer

Stratolaunch has carried out a successful release of its hypersonic Talon-A vehicle from the company's giant Roc launch aircraft over the Pacific ahead of the first test flight this summer.

Founded by the late Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, the business conducted a release exercise on May 13 using a special separation test vehicle, TA-0, which demonstrated the ability of the launch system to cleanly and safely separate hypersonic vehicles from Roc's center-wing pylon, Stratolaunch said.

The test, it added, also confirmed the telemetry link between the vehicle and Vandenberg Space Force Base on the California coast to demonstrate it can collect data during future hypersonic flight tests.

Stratolaunch CEO and president Dr Zachary Krevor hailed the test as "exceptional," saying the hardware and telemetry systems functioned as expected, and the company now "stands at the precipice of achieving hypersonic flight."

The first hypersonic test flight, to be carried out by the "expendable testbed" TA-1 vehicle, is slated for the late summer of 2023. A third vehicle, TA-2, is under construction and expected to be the first reusable model.

All of this is progress for a company that has seen its share of ups and downs. In 2019, Stratolaunch ceased operations following the death of Paul Allen the previous year. Allen, famously a co-founder of Microsoft, had supplied the funding for the company's technical development.

Later that year, Stratolaunch disclosed it had come under the ownership of Cerberus Capital Management and had switched to offering flight test services instead of Allen's aim, which had been to use the Roc aircraft to carry rockets up to high altitude before launching them to carry payloads into low-Earth orbit.

Stratolaunch's Talon-A vehicle is a fully reusable hypersonic aircraft intended to fly at operational speeds greater than Mach 5, or 5 times the speed of sound. It is described as a rocket-powered autonomous aircraft capable of carrying customizable payloads for testing at hypersonic speeds for both government and commercial customers.

The Talon-A is 8.5m (27.8ft) long and has a wingspan of 3.4m (11ft). It is believed that up to three could be carried by the Roc launch aircraft, with the Talon-A gliding back for conventional landing on an existing runway once its test flight is completed.

The Roc aircraft was designed and built for Stratolaunch by Scaled Composites, and is claimed to be the largest aircraft in the world, following the sad demise of the Antonov An-225, which was destroyed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Like many aircraft produced by Scaled Composites, Roc has an unusual design, with twin fuselages joined by a central wing and powered by six jet engines mounted on the two outer wings. This gives it the widest wingspan of any aircraft flown, at 117m (385ft), although at 73m (238ft) in length, it is shorter than others such as the An-225.

Another company hoping to launch payloads into space by using aircraft to carry rockets aloft was Virgin Orbit, which also ran into financial difficulties following a failed launch attempt and filed for bankruptcy in the US last month. ®

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