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Why Make the World's Biggest Plane?

large plane
(Image: Getty Images)

Recently there was some big news in the science world, really big. Every now and then scientists work on something so big that it catches a lot of attention for the size alone. If a big new innovation also happens to serve a game changing purpose, then it becomes even cooler! That's exactly what today's story is all about. To begin the story we must start with a really big question. Why make the world's biggest plane? Listen to this  Question Your World radio report produced by the  Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

One April 13th, the Stratolaunch plane made its debut flight from the Mojave space port, thus officially making this the largest plane to ever fly! Sure, there have been some pretty big planes in the past, one of the most famous being the Spruce Goose with a 320 foot wingspan, but this one is even bigger!

To understand the size of the plane, we'll leave behind simple metric measurements and go to a mind blowing size comparison.  The 385 foot wingspan is interesting, but let's put it to some context. The giant Sratolaunch plane would stretch across an entire football field including the end zones. For you Washington football fans, end zones are where teams go to score points.  Anyway, unlike other big planes that were created for transatlantic transportation or luxury, this one has a completely different purpose. The goal of Stratolaunch is to create a cheaper way to get small satellites into orbit.

As technology has advanced the size of satellites has become smaller and smaller. Keep in mind that not too long ago a computer only came in desktop sizes. Soon after, as technology advanced, we had laptops and now we have smartphones, fully functional computers that fit in our pockets. Satellite technology is following a similar trajectory, some of them are getting smaller as well.  Some of the orbiting satellites we use are about the size of a microwave.  Launching them from higher in the atmosphere could be a more efficient and cost-effective way to get smaller satellites into orbit when compared to the traditional vertical launch from the ground.

So how would it even work? 

This plane would carry a small rocket up to high altitude, where the rocket would be released, dropped and, once clear of the plane, launch itself into space... saving tremendous amounts of rocket fuel. Stratolaunch would then return to Earth ready to be reused for future launches, rather than being discarded in the ocean like most rocket boosters.

As more competition grows in the commercial space flight industry ideas like these are becoming more commonplace. This was just a two and a half hour test flight so much more testing is needed before planes like these start flying on the reg. The big question now is- will this be the future of how we get small satellites into orbit?  That's hard to say. We don’t know  quite yet, but the Stratolaunch team certainly thinks this technology is taking off!


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