Paul Allen Finds Rocket Launch Partner for Largest-Ever Jet

  • Pegasus XL to send satellites into space from mid-air
  • Orbital ATK, Vulcan previously partnered on bigger rocket

Conceptual rendering of the Stratolaunch Aircraft and the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles.

Source: Vulcan Aerospace

Billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. found a partner to fire off rockets at 30,000 feet from an enormous twin-hulled airplane: Pegasus XL, which has provided air-launched rides to space since the 1990s.

Vulcan’s Stratolaunch Systems is reuniting with Orbital ATK Inc., which operates Pegasus, to take aim at the burgeoning launch sector catering to small-satellite operators. They plan to sling 1,000-pound (450-kilogram) payloads into low-earth orbit from a hulking jet taking shape in California’s Mojave Desert, according to a statement Thursday by the companies.

Stratolaunch faces plenty of competitors developing smaller rockets to offer cut-rate rides to space for the latest miniature satellites, which are being built for as little as $10,000 and deployed in swarms to monitor crops, create Web hotspots and track weather systems. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic LLC plans to air-launch rockets from a Boeing 747-400, while Rocket Lab Ltd. and Firefly Space Systems are preparing to operate from ground-based ranges.

Vulcan had been searching for a partner since it ended a previous agreement with Orbital in 2015 to launch 10,000-pound payloads from intermediate-size rockets. Allen’s venture had originally planned to use rockets made by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the venture founded by Elon Musk.

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Shares of Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital dipped less than 1 percent to $75.33 at 3:13 p.m. in New York. The stock had fallen 15 percent this year through Wednesday.

Allen’s Stratolaunch Aircraft will have a 385-foot (117-meter) wingspan, enough to dwarf the length of a football field or soccer pitch. Pegasus has carried out 42 missions to space, flinging more than 80 satellites into orbit from the underside of a Lockheed Martin Corp. L1011, according to the statement.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to note an earlier partnership with Orbital ATK.)

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