Virgin Galactic knows that not everyone will go to space. The company is now (slightly) broadening its potential customer base with plans for a Mach 3 aircraft, focused on delivering high-speed travel around the globe.
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 have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high speed travel.– George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer
The company announced that it completed the Mission Concept Review for the project. It also has been working with the FAA’s Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation to outline a certification framework that would apply to the new airplane. Much like with the Boom Supersonic Overture, current FAA rules regrading noise levels would not apply to the Virgin Galactic design.
The baseline design for Virgin Galactic covers a craft that can seat 9-19 passengers traveling at Mach 3 while 60,000 feet above earth’s surface. The company also notes that it is expected to take off and land like any other passenger aircraft and be expected to integrate into existing airport infrastructure and international airspace around the world.
Virgin Galactic did not mention any details around timelines with respect to the aircraft’s development. Clean-sheet aircraft designs rarely come together quickly. And while Virgin Galactic may benefit slightly from similar efforts being pushed from competitors in the market this is necessarily a long-term effort, not a quick play. Don’t start planning a supersonic flight to the Spaceport for your ride on SpaceShipTwo just yet.
Engines from Rolls-Royce
Much like last week’s announcement from Boom Supersonic, Virgin Galactic announced a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Rolls-Royce to collaborate in designing and developing engine propulsion technology for high speed commercial aircraft.” As with the Boom deal there are no guarantees of anything coming to fruition, but if the aircraft does advance in development it is quite likely to be powered by Rolls hardware.
The competitive landscape
It is hard to imagine a competitive landscape developing in the supersonic travel space (and good reasons to believe that one shouldn’t) but the Virgin Galactic option is far from alone. Aerion’s AS2 aims to carry a dozen or so passengers at Mach 1.4, for example. That’s a similar capacity but a much slower cruising speed, even if it is faster than everything else available today. The AS2 is also furthest along in development, though that offers no guarantee of flight anytime soon.
And then there’s the Boom Overture. It envisions a 50 passenger cabin flying at Mach 2.2. This brings it far closer to the size and speed that would be supported in the commercial aviation sector. The smaller cabins are much more akin to private jets.
It is also worth pointing out that Virgin Atlantic signed a deal with Boom Supersonic in 2016. Keeping the fun within the Virgin branding would be nice, perhaps, but the different market targets for the aircraft may not allow for that. Also, it remains unclear which, if any, of them will be flying later this decade or beyond.
Green-washing the supersonic experience
Virgin Galactic only obliquely addresses the environmental impact of supersonic travel in the release. The company says the “aircraft design also aims to help lead the way toward use of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel” and that it will be built with “sustainable technologies and techniques into the aircraft design early on” as a “catalyst to adoption in the rest of the aviation community.”
This phrasing sounds promising, but it doesn’t mean much in the bigger picture. Newer aircraft are generally massively more efficient than the prior generation. And while any of these may deliver on that evolution relative to Concorde, none of them will be anywhere close to more efficient than modern commercial or general aviation aircraft. Even running on 100% sustainable fuels (of which the supply does not exist and likely won’t even at the timeframes these aircraft envision entry into service) they still consume massively more than the other planes. And none of the fuels can be produced without other costs, both financial and environmental.
The time savings associated with supersonic travel is supposed to offset those increased costs. But while the financial burden of that time saved can be borne solely by the person spending the money to fly, the environmental impact is shared more broadly.
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