This morning, Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic unveiled the design of its proposed supersonic jet. The company claims the final version of the vehicle could carry between nine and 19 passengers and reach Mach 3, or three times faster than the speed of sound.
Virgin Galactic’s primary focus is its space tourism business, which strives to send paying customers to the edge of space and back on the company’s spaceplane. But for years, Virgin Galactic has also signaled its interest in leveraging its space technology to develop high-speed, point-to-point travel. The concept entails using suborbital rockets to get people from one point on Earth to the other in much less time than a typical airplane.
Lately, Virgin Galactic has started eyeing supersonic jets instead of suborbital rockets in order to get travelers where they want to go as quickly as possible. In May, the company announced that it was getting some help from NASA in order to develop the company’s supersonic jets. NASA has decades of experience with supersonic vehicle technology, and the agency is currently working on a “silent” high-Mach jet called X-59 QueSST. Thanks to NASA, Virgin Galactic says its supersonic jet design passed a mission concept review, which means the “design concept can meet the high-level requirements and objectives of the mission.”
Along with unveiling new renders of the supersonic jet design, Virgin Galactic is announcing yet another partnership, this time with Rolls-Royce, to develop the propulsion needed for the aircraft. The two companies have signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the endeavor.
Virgin Galactic outlined a few details for the vehicle, noting that it will travel at 60,000 feet and that it will “help lead the way toward use of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel.” However, many questions remain regarding how long it will take to develop the aircraft and how much everything will cost. With room for only a dozen or so passengers, it seems unlikely that ticket prices will be reasonable for the average person. Virgin Galactic’s ticket prices for its tourist spaceplane run $250,000, for instance. The company says the supersonic jet can accommodate custom cabin layouts as well as Business and First Class seats, which indicates there may be an expensive price tag.
Today’s announcement comes ahead of Virgin Galactic’s quarterly earnings, which reported another major net loss for the company. Virgin Galactic netted a loss of $63 million this quarter, slightly more than its net loss of $60 million from the previous quarter. However, the company says it is on track to start commercial spaceflight early next year, after doing two more powered test flights with its spaceplane. Then, in the first quarter of 2021, Virgin Galactic plans to fly Branson to space, kicking off commercial operations.
Update August 3rd, 4:35PM ET: This story was updated to include new information from Virgin Galactic’s quarterly earnings.