On August 3 2020, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, unveiled the design of the British spaceflight company’s newest project: A supersonic passenger jet capable of flying at three times the speed of sound.
Virgin Galactic, famous for its determination to send tourists to the edge of space to experience “weightlessness”, is currently busy developing an aircraft capable of flying people across the planet at unprecedented speed. Virgin Galactic came to fill the gap for ultra-fast air travel after British Airways retired Concorde in October 2003. Other companies that newly entered the supersonic jet race include Aerion Corporation and Boom, both US based with supersonic jets currently in creation.
The highly anticipated delta-wing jet aims to cruise at above 18’300 m, far higher than any existing aircraft. At the speed of 3’700 km per hour, Virgin Galactic’s jet will be able to fly from London to New York in less than two hours. In comparison, Concorde’s retired supersonic jet was able to hit a top speed of just above Mach 2, travelling from London to New York in about three hours. It will be an exclusive and quite expensive experience though, as the jet will be able to carry 19 passengers at most in a first-class or business-class customizable seating arrangement.
Virgin Galactic’s future Mach 3 jet, reminiscent of its predecessor Concorde, is still in the design process but making steady progress. George Whitesides, the company’s chief space officer announced that the jet recently passed a Mission Concept Review. The MCR panel, with representatives from NASA, confirmed that the concept “can meet the high-level requirements and objectives of the mission.” The panel’s final statement mentioned that the aircraft is expected to blend into existing airport infrastructure and international airspace, taking off and landing the traditional way. In addition to its role in the jet’s concept review, NASA, with decades of experience in supersonic vehicle technology, is currently providing Virgin Galactic with resources and expertise to design and develop the new high-speed jet, after both parties signed an agreement earlier in May.
In addition to its collaboration with NASA, Virgin Galactic revealed signing a memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce engine makers to collaborate and develop the propulsion technology needed for the new Mach 3 jet. “Rolls-Royce brings a unique history in high-speed propulsion, going back to the Concorde, and offers world-class technical capabilities to develop and field the advanced propulsion systems needed to power commercially available high-Mach travel,” said Tom Bell, Rolls-Royce North America’s Chairman and CEO.
Virgin Galactic also recently gained authorization from the FAA’s Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation to work with FAA resources and outline the jet’s certification framework. Ready to take the next step in the challenging design phase, the company will now work on the aircraft’s specific system operational architecture, addressing issues like economics, emissions, noise, maintenance, and selection of proper design materials. Notably, the company revealed plans on using more environmentally sustainable fuel rather than traditional jet fuel, in hopes of positively impacting the rest of the aviation industry.
Now…How long will it take to develop the supersonic jet? How much will it cost to develop? When will commercial operations begin? How much will it cost to fly “exclusively” at supersonic speed? All these questions and many more are pending response in the near future. Stay tuned!