Virgin Galactic, the space tourism arm of Richard Branson’s multinational commercial empire (aka. the Virgin Group) has some bold plans for the future. In the past year, the company carried out two glide tests with their LauncherOne vehicle, completed two successful flight tests with their SpaceShipTwo vehicle, and unveiled the Gateway to Space – their space tourism hub at Spaceport America.
And last week (Monday, August 3rd), the company announced that it had entered into a partnership with engine-maker Rolls-Royce to build a supersonic commercial aircraft that would travel three times the speed of sound (Mach 3). If realized, the proposed aerospace vehicle will carry 19 passengers to altitudes of more than 18,000 meters (60,000 ft) while travelling at speeds 50% faster than the Concorde.
According to the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), Virgin Galactic and Rolls-Royce will henceforth be collaborating to design and develop engine propulsion technology for a high-speed commercial aircraft. The announcement followed the successful completion of a Mission Concept Review (MCR), as well as authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation.
Virgin Galactic chose to partner with Rolls-Royce because of their track record, being the only company to build a civilly-certified commercial aircraft capable of supersonic flight. This was the Concorde, the supersonic commercial aircraft that operated between 1976 and 2003, had a service ceiling of 18,000 m (60,000 ft), and was capable of traveling of speeds of up to Mach 2.
As George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer (CSO) for Virgin Galactic, said in a company statement:
“We are excited to complete the Mission Concept Review and unveil this initial design concept of a high speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivalled customer experience. We are pleased to collaborate with the innovative team at Rolls-Royce as we strive to develop sustainable, cutting-edge propulsion systems for the aircraft, and we are pleased to be working with the FAA to ensure our designs can make a practical impact from the start. We have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high speed travel.”
“We are excited to partner with Virgin Galactic and TSC to explore the future of sustainable high speed flight,” added Rolls-Royce North America Chairman & CEO, Tom Bell. “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.”
While the Concorde represented a major milestone in the development of high-speed commercial aircraft, technical issues and the high cost of fuelling the jet meant that it never became the huge commercial success its designers hoped it would be. In particular, the Concorde suffered from thermal management issues and generated a lot of noise (which led to political opposition on both sides of the Atlantic).
These and other drawbacks drove up the costs of operating and maintaining the Concorde, leading to its eventual cancellation. However, the Mission Concept Review (which included representatives from NASA) confirmed that the design concept can meet the challenges posed by commercial supersonic flight, thus allowing the teams from Virgin Galactic and Rolls Royce to process to the next phase of the design.
As stated in the statement, this will consist of “defining specific system architectures and configurations, and determining which materials to use in the design and manufacturing of the aircraft.” In addition, VG stressed that their teams will be addressing the key challenges of “thermal management, maintenance, noise, emissions, and economics” that their concept will entail.
In addition to the basic parameters establishing a maximum speed, crew capacity, and cruising altitude, the initial design also stressed the ability to incorporates custom cabin layouts with various seating arrangements (i.e. Business, First Class, etc.) The design also seeks to address the issue of fuel consumption by calling for the use of “state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel.”
No indication was provided as to what this would entail, but VG stated that they plan on establishing sustainable technologies and techniques as a baseline while the aircraft is still in the early design phase. VG also claimed that they were eyeing a number of operational scenarios for the aircraft, which would include (but not be limited to) long-distance commercial flights that would rely on existing airports and infrastructure.
Both the MOU that was signed and the recently-passed MCR build on a relationship that Virgin Galactic and NASA. Previously, the company signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to determine the “feasibility of VG-sponsored Private Astronaut missions to the International Space Station (ISS).” This agreement, if determined to be feasible, would give VG access to the ISS to conduct research and experiments of their own.
In 2018 and 2019, in collaboration with NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, Virgin Galactic carried technologies and experiments to space as part of SpaceShipTwo’s flight tests. These missions saw the VSS Unity transport four NASA-sponsored experiments designed to test the behavior of fine particles, thermal control and life support, stabilization in microgravity, and biological imaging at suborbital altitudes.
All of this is good news for Sir Richard Branson, or at least, has the potential to be. At a time when travel restrictions are forcing company’s like Virgin Airlines to seek bankruptcy protection, Branson appears to be doubling down on his plans for next-generation trave. Specifically, he appears to be banking on space tourism and the development of hyperloop travel to ensure the future of his transportation empire.