Virgin Galactic just revealed a new supersonic passenger jet planned with Rolls-Royce, which used to make Concorde jet engines

Virgin GalacticAn artist’s concept of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic jet, which the company hopes is capable of high-speed passenger travel at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound.
  • Virgin Galactic, the space-tourism company founded by Richard Branson, wants to pursue high-speed passenger travel as well.
  • On Monday, Virgin Galactic revealed a preliminary design for a supersonic jet capable of flying up to 19 people at Mach 3, or 2,300 mph.
  • Publishing the design is a very early step – even with very fast development it would still be years before the plane could fly.
  • A Virgin Galactic executive previously told Business Insider that the company thinks high-speed passenger travel could be a $US15 billion annual business.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Not long after Virgin Galactic unveiled the interior design of its rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo, built to fly tourists beyond the edge of space and back, the company revealed plans for a foray into high-speed passenger travel.

On Monday, Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, published a high-level design for a new supersonic jet capable of flying nine to 19 people from New York City to London in about 90 minutes.

It said it planned to build the high-speed aircraft with the help of Rolls-Royce, the company that built the afterburner turbojet engines for the discontinued Concorde jet.

Virgin Galactic said that it was also working with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration to realise the new aircraft and that, to that end, it recently completed what’s called a mission concept review.

The review is an early but essential step in certifying a vehicle for flight. Even with very fast development, it may take many years before such a plane would actually be ready to carry passengers.

Illustration virgin galactic supersonic mach 3 jet aeroplane high speed aircraft rolls royce 3Virgin GalacticAn artist’s concept of Virgin Galactic’s planned supersonic jet from above.

The preliminary design for the unnamed aircraft – though the illustrations list “N2000VG” on its tail – suggests it will have delta wings and be capable of travelling at Mach 3, or about 2,300 mph, at an altitude of roughly 60,000 feet.

The Concorde jet, which retired in 2003, was capable of Mach 2, or about 1,300 mph.

“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,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s former CEO and new chief space officer, said in a press release.

“We have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high speed travel,” he added.

A $US15 billion annual business?

Illustration virgin galactic supersonic mach 3 jet aeroplane high speed aircraft rolls royce 3Virgin GalacticAn artist’s concept of Virgin Galactic’s planned supersonic jet from below, showing its Rolls Royce engines.

In a recent interview with Business Insider, Whitesides (then Virgin Galactic’s CEO) said the company wanted to expand well beyond suborbital space tourism and break into frequent supersonic passenger travel.

He said Virgin Galactic hoped to leverage its growing flight data and operations experience, along with new research and development, into a new high-speed transportation system.

The goal: Claim a fraction of the airline industry’s premium long-haul travel business, which totals about $US300 billion a year.

“If we can just capture 5% or something like that, then it’s still a huge number,” Whitesides told Business Insider in May, adding that $US10 billion to $US15 billion in revenue “is a massive opportunity.”

He said he believes people will want to go places faster in smaller vehicles and will be willing to pay for the privilege. “The things that we’re working on are very much part of our aviation future,” he said.

The gap for such operations is wide open, given that the Concorde, a supersonic passenger airliner, retired in 2003.

ConcordeAPA British Airways Concorde supersonic jet taking off in flight.

That’s not to say it will be easy or inexpensive to reclaim, improve, and expand such business territory, but Whitesides said Virgin Galactic was up to the challenge, even in the face of failures in creating supersonic and even hypersonic passenger vehicles.

“The words ‘many companies have tried’ is music to my ears,” Whitesides said. “People said we couldn’t build up a human-spaceflight company. People say we couldn’t go public.”

Whitesides said that flying passengers in SpaceShipTwo at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound – the vehicle’s top speed, which it uses to fly more than 50 miles above Earth – would help Virgin Galactic gain an edge over competitors in the supersonic-jet space.

Virgin Galactic’s growing rocketry know-how with SpaceShipTwo might also eventually be leveraged into a hypersonic system that could fly between Mach 5 and 25.

This is what SpaceX hopes to eventually do with its fully reusable Starship-Super Heavy launch system. In theory, such a hypersonic vehicle could get from New York to Shanghai in less than an hour.

But Whitesides said that hypersonic speeds introduced lots of complexity and that a Mach 3 aircraft made more sense to pursue initially.

Virgin Galactic provided no timeline for actually building, testing, and ultimately flying passengers on the new supersonic jet aircraft.

“It’s not going to be next year, but it is something that I think we can continue to work on in a sort of a staged approach and hopefully change the world,” Whitesides previously told Business Insider.

Virgin Galactic, which posted a $US60 million loss in the first quarter and a $US73 million loss the quarter before that, plans to host its 2020 second-quarter earnings call at 5 p.m. ET on Monday.

Have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at [email protected] or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.

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