Virgin Galactic, Rolls-Royce Team Up to Develop Mach 3 Plane

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. will work with engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc to develop a plane that can travel at three times the speed of sound.

The recruitment of Rolls-Royce, which provided the engines for Concorde, the world’s only civil-certified supersonic aircraft to date, is aimed at devising a propulsion system that’s both cutting-edge and sustainable, Virgin Galactic Chief Space Officer George Whitesides said in a statement Monday.

The Spaceship Co., Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing division, is seeking to develop a Mach 3 delta-winged aircraft that would fly at an altitude above 60,000 feet and carry between nine and 16 people in a premium cabin, while taking off and landing like any other passenger plane at existing airports.

Virgin Galactic, Rolls-Royce Team Up to Develop Mach 3 Plane

Plans for a return to supersonic passenger flight following Concorde’s exit from service in 2003 have been gathering pace over the past decade. That push has been called into question as aviation becomes a prime target for climate campaigners, with projects now facing the challenge of cutting carbon emissions and reducing noise as well as making flights viable.

The outline accord with Rolls-Royce comes after the Virgin Galactic program cleared a mission-concept review that included representatives from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration backed work on an certification framework for the plane.

Next Step

The next step will involve developing the design, deciding which materials to use, and addressing the CO2 hurdle and problems posed by the sonic boom that comes with breaking the sound barrier, which were a major factor in limiting Concorde to a handful of routes, Virgin Galactic said.

The high-speed plane project is separate to Virgin Galactic’s main space venture, which aims to launch affluent adventure-seekers into sub-orbital flight before the end of this year, though the schedule could be delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic, has reduced his stake in the company to around one-third after selling shares to help raise money to support other group ventures including Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

The partnership with Rolls-Royce comes after the U.K. engine maker last week announced a pact with Boom Technology Inc., one of three startups that have been competing to bring a new supersonic market in the next few years.

Boom also holds tentative orders from Branson’s Virgin Group, while the billionaire said in 2017 that Virgin Galactic would play a role in developing the fledgling company’s planned plane, building parts of the XB-1 demonstrator that’s due to be unveiled in October.

Virgin Galactic traded 2.5% higher as of 10:09 a.m. in New York and has almost doubled in price this year. Rolls-Royce declined 4% and has lost two-thirds of its value in 2020.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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