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Virgin Galactic and Rolls-Royce team up to join race for first supersonic jet since Concorde

Rolls-Royce worked on the joint development of Concorde, which was launched in the 1970s but retired in 2003

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc -
The initial design of the new aircraft

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (NYSE:SPCE) has signed up Rolls-Royce Holding PLC (LON:RR.) to help design and develop engine technology for the first commercial supersonic aircraft since Concorde. 

The space tourism company, which was founded by Richard Branson, has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce as it announced the first-stage design parameters for the construction of its planned high-speed aircraft.

Virgin Galactic made the announcement as its The Spaceship Company (TSC) arm unveiled the initial design concept for its planned high-speed aircraft, which it said would enable “safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivalled customer experience”, following the unveiling of the design for spacecraft last month.

The aircraft is designed to be able to take passengers on long-distance commercial aviation routes, taking off and landing like any other passenger aircraft, and able to integrate into existing airport infrastructure and international airspace around the world.

READ: Airlines, plane manufacturers and tour operators beware - space could be your Kodak moment

Analysts have been eyeing the potential disruption for the long-haul flights market from space-focused companies, seeing this as a potential game-changer for the premium travel market.

New York-listed Virgin Galactic pointed to Rolls-Royce’s record of working on high-mach engine propulsion as part of its joint development of the supersonic Concorde aeroplane, though this was launched in the 1970s and retired in 2003.

The agreement followed the completion of its ‘mission concept review’ (MCR) program and the gaining of authorisation from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation for the outline of a certification framework.

Under the basic design parameters, TSC aims for the aircraft to be a Mach 3 certified delta-wing aircraft that would have capacity to carry from nine to 19 people, flying up to altitudes above 60,000 feet using sustainable fuel technologies, with configurable cabin layouts to include business or first class seating.

Although it has been almost two decades since Concorde stopped flying, there are several US companies looking to bring supersonic flights back to the skies in 2023, including Boom Supersonic, which is developing a 55-seater Overture aircraft also powered by Rolls-Royce; Aerion Supersonic, which is also working on a 12-seater with Lockheed Martin; and Spike Aerospace's plans to fly 12-18 passengers non-stop from Dubai to New York in around half the time it currently takes modern planes.

Boeing, meanwhile, has trumpeted slightly vague plans for hypersonic planes, travelling at Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound, to make the jump from Sydney to San Francisco in just under two hours.

“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,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief space officer. 

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

Last week the FAA authorised some resources to work with the Virgin Galactic team to begin to outline a certification framework during the pre-project guidance phase, with Virgin Galactic saying it believes working with regulators and partners such as Rolls Royce and Boeing “will support the mission to broaden and transform global travel technologies, with a focus on customer experience”.

The Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 engine, jointly developed with France's Snecma, now Safran, was the only afterburning turbojet that has ever powered a commercial aircraft.

Tom Bell, CEO of Rolls-Royce North America said: “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.”

Virgin Galactic stock rose 4% to US$23.33 in early Wall Street trading on Monday.

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Quick facts: Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc

Price: 35.59 USD

Market: NYSE
Market Cap: $8.41 billion

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