The aircraft, developed in cooperation with NASA, is expected to become the first supersonic airliner since the withdrawal of the Concorde.
August 3, 2020, Virgin Galactic unveiled a concept for a new high-speed civilian aircraft, after completion of a Mission Concept Review (MCR) and clearance from the Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The aircraft, which does not yet have an official name, would be able to fly continuously at Mach 3 at an altitude above 60,000 feet. The delta wing plane is reminiscent of the Franco-British Concorde, with a streamlined profile and engine nacelles under the wings, but likely smaller as the company said it will have a capacity of nine to 19 people (depending on configuration cabin), while the Concorde had seating configurations for 92 to 128 passengers.
According to Virgin Galactic, together with the MCR, the team behind the project has confirmed, after extensive research and analysis, that the concept can meet design goals and proceed to the definition of systems and materials. of the aircraft, while addressing thermal management, maintenance, noise, emissions and the economic maintenance of the fleet.
The MCR also included representatives from NASA, after the company signed in May 2020 a space law agreement with the agency to collaborate “to advance the United States’ efforts to produce technically feasible, high Mach vehicles for potential civilian applications.”
NASA has years of experience in supersonic aircraft technology and is currently working in partnership with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division to develop the X-59 QueSST (Quiet Supersonic Technology), an aircraft designed to generate a quieter sonic boom that is expected to fall within acceptable noise levels to help the FAA lift the ban on commercial supersonic land travel imposed in 1973. The data collected from of this program could probably find their way into the design of Virgin’s aircraft.
Last year, the agency proposed new rules for supersonic airplanes and also said it could review the ban if technological changes that mitigate the sonic impact of supersonic flight were to occur. The X-59, which should fly for the first time next year, is designed to navigate at 55,000 feet and Mach 1.4 according to NASA, with a sonic boom of less than 75 dB perceived on the ground, about a third less than the Concorde, which has been reported around 100- 110 dB.
In addition, Virgin Galactic has signed a memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce to collaborate in the design and development of the engine that will be used for this project. The cooperation with Rolls-Royce, the same maker of the Olympus Concorde engines, also aims to include the use of state-of-the-art, sustainable aviation fuel in the engine design.
The Concorde, with the Soviet Tu-144, was a technological marvel for the time. Even though it was designed in the 1960s, the Concorde already featured carbon fiber brakes and electric controls. The aircraft, however, suffered from some drawbacks such as the high fuel consumption of around 6,700 gallons per hour, limited range that was just sufficient to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and the noise generated by the sonic boom, which prevented l aircraft to fly supersonically only. Above water. the 2000 crash in Paris may have definitely marked the time to move away from supersonic airliners, which led to the Concorde’s retirement in 2003.
Virgin said its design philosophy is to make high-speed travel convenient, durable, safe and reliable, with the new aircraft able to operate as a standard airliner from existing airports without the need for special infrastructure. The Mach 3 aircraft is just one of Virgin Galactic’s plans, as the company is also working on starting suborbital commercial flights from Spaceport America, New Mexico with its SpaceShipTwo reusable space flight system.
As Virgin works on a new supersonic civilian aircraft, on the military side, it’s no secret that Lockheed is working on a new concept of unmanned aircraft, a successor to the SR-71, which is colloquially referred to in most media. the “SR-72” which should have a global reach, be able to fly beyond Mach 6, be little observable and potentially have a strike capacity. The new hypersonic drone concept primarily for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions was announced in 2013. In November 2018, Lockheed Martin said a prototype of the SR-72 was to fly by 2025.