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Paul Allen's Stratolaunch Systems unveils world's biggest plane

20 June 2016

Stratolaunch Systems, a unit of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's privately owned Vulcan Aerospace, last week offered a small group of reporters a first look at a nearly finished aircraft.

The space launch company plans to compete with space entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts by launching satellites into orbit from the plane, the world's largest.

The six-engine plane with a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m), would be larger than Howard Hughes' 1947 H-4 Hercules, known as the "Spruce Goose," and the Soviet-era cargo plane Antonov An-225.

Allen's move comes even as new businesses plan to sell internet access, earth imagery, climate data and other services from networks of hundreds of satellites in low-altitude orbits around earth.

His vision, however is different from Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and other companies that seek to commercially exploit space.

The advantage of Allen's approach would be the ability to position the plane so satellites could be directly delivered into very precise orbits very quickly, without launch range scheduling issues and weather-related delays, according to Chuck Beames, executive director of Stratolaunch Systems and president of Vulcan Aerospace, who oversaw Allen's space ventures, Reuters reported.

In a statement, Allen said Stratolaunch and other efforts to expand access to low earth orbit held ''revolutionary potential'' similar to that brought by the PC revolution in the 1980s and the rise of the web and smartphones in the 1990s.

''When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,'' he added. ''That's the thing about new platforms: When they become easily available, convenient and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts.''

According to Beames, Stratolaunch was meant to be a money-maker as also a manifestation of Allen's technological vision.

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