A new company backed by billionaire Paul Allen plans to build the largest aircraft ever to deploy payloads and eventually humans to orbit.
Stratolaunch Systems will reunite the Microsoft co-founder with pioneering aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his former firm Scaled Composites to develop the carrier aircraft, which will deploy a multi-stage rocket booster developed by SpaceX.
Allen and Rutan developed SpaceShipOne (above), winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 and precursor to the Virgin Galactic's suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle.
"We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry," Allen said in a press release. "Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel."
The release identifies Kennedy Space Center as a potential base of operations for the new system, and a promotional video appears to show a takeoff and landing from the Shuttle Landing Facility.
Stratolaunch headquarters is based in Huntsville, Ala. Scaled will build the plane at Mojave Air and Space Port, with a first flight planned within five years. Huntsville-based Dynetics will build a mating and integration system for the booster.
Gary Wentz, a former NASA chief engineer, will serve as the company's CEO. In addition to Rutan and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, board members include former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.
A 2 p.m. EST press conference unveiling the initiative is planned at the Seattle headquarters of Allen's Vulcan Inc. Watch it live here.
IMAGE: Credit Stratolaunch Systems