The Spaceship Company (TSC) announced on Monday its first-stage design scope, as well as a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Rolls-Royce for collaboration on a supersonic passenger aircraft.
“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 chief space officer, said in a Monday news release.
“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 [US Federal Aviation Administration] 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.”
While perhaps best known for its luxurious automobiles, the British engineering company Rolls-Royce has long been a major player in airplane engine manufacturing as well. According to a study of corporate revenues, Rolls-Royce was the 24th-largest defense contractor worldwide in 2019, Defense News reported.
It was also the firm behind the engines on the Concorde, a Franco-British aircraft that was one of only two commercial supersonic airliners. Between 1976 and 2003, the Concorde shuffled affluent passengers from New York City to Paris in 3.5 hours at a maximum speed of Mach 2.
The only other supersonic airliner was the Soviet Union’s Tu-144, which debuted several years before the Concorde and had a similar top speed, but which suffered from reliability problems that saw it transition into use as a cargo aircraft instead of a passenger plane.
The photos posted by Virgin Galactic clearly evoke the silhouette of the Concorde, which was painted bright white and sported two large delta wings with two large jet engines underneath.
Virgin Galactic has primarily focused on building a viable spaceplane company around its SpaceShipTwo-class spaceplanes and New Mexico spaceport. However, its foray into supersonic airliners will meet much stiffer competition.
Some of the other faster-than-sound passenger projects out there include the X-59, a dart-like plane which NASA and Lockheed Martin are assembling mostly from retired US military aircraft, and Boom Technology’s XB-1, which the company promises will fly for the first time this October.
According to Virgin Galactic, the plane will only be able to seat between nine and 19 people, which is far below the Concorde’s still-small capacity of 128 persons, or the Tu-144’s 140 seats.
Some of the problems now being sorted out are which materials to use in construction in order to “address key challenges in thermal management, maintenance, noise, emissions, and economics that routine high speed commercial flights would entail,” the company said.