Virgin Galactic doesn’t only have designs on commercial suborbital flights, taking paying space tourism customers to the edge of space — it also wants to create a high-speed commercial aircraft to whisk passengers high above the clouds to take them to their destinations on Earth.
The company has unveiled its new aircraft design, which will travel at speeds of up to Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound. The craft will flight at a very high altitude of over 60,000 feet — considerably higher than standard commercial aircraft, which typically fly at altitudes of between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.
The aircraft will be able to carry between nine and 19 people, and Virgin Galactic says it will have options for custom cabin layouts which could include business class or first-class seating. There is no indication of what kind of prices customers might expect to pay for a ticket, but given the high-status appeal of the aircraft, we can bet it won’t be cheap.
Virgin Galactic says it will work with Rolls-Royce to develop the propulsion systems for the aircraft, which the company’s chief space officer, George Whitesides, says will be sustainable and cutting-edge. Rolls-Royce pointed to its history of high-speed aircraft propulsion, including creating the turbo jet, which powered the groundbreaking but ultimately ill-fated faster-than-sound jet Concorde.
In the last few years, Virgin Galactic has made it known that it intends to put on super fast commercial city-to-city flights, and earlier this year the company signed a deal with NASA to collaborate on high-speed vehicles. Now, it has completed its Mission Concept Review for the craft, which included NASA representatives, which means it can now move on to the next stage of Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) authorization.
NASA has experience of its own with designing and building new aircraft, such as its supersonic X-59 plane or its experimental Maxwell X-57 plane which the agency showed off last year. The X-57 is powered by an electric cruise motor rather than the traditional combustion engine which should make it more environmentally friendly as well as being more efficient and quieter.
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