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Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic plane concept

Virgin Galactic has taken the wraps off a concept for an airplane capable of flying three times the speed of sound, to be developed with support from Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

The project would be distinct from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane program, which is closing in on the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Today’s announcement follows through on the company’s heightened focus on high-speed aircraft development, which is backed by a $20 million investment from Boeing HorizonX and supported by a deal with NASA to collaborate on supersonic projects.

Such an initiative seems likely to pit Virgin Galactic against aerospace industry players that have a head start in the race to revive supersonic travel — ranging from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to Boom Supersonic, a startup that Virgin Galactic partnered with years ago.

Virgin Galactic says it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce for the development of the plane’s engine propulsion system, has put the design through a mission concept review in cooperation with NASA representatives, and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to lay out a certification framework for the plane.

George Whitesides, who recently transitioned from CEO to a new position known as chief space officer to work on new projects, said the company has made “great progress so far” on the concept.

“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 unrivaled customer experience,” Whitesides said in a news release.

The basic parameters of the design include a Mach 3 delta-wing aircraft that would have the capacity to fly nine to 19 people at an altitude above 60,000 feet. Virgin Galactic could provide customized cabin layouts to address customer needs, including business-class or first-class seating. The plane would be designed to use existing airport infrastructure and lead the way in the use of sustainable aviation fuel.

The company provided no timetable for development. Nevertheless, the stock market’s initial reaction to the news was positive — boosting Virgin Galactic’s share price in early trading today.

Commercial supersonic travel faded away in 2003 with the retirement of the British-French Concorde, due to concerns about cost and sonic-boom restrictions. In recent years, NASA and a variety of aerospace ventures have been looking into “quiet-boom” technologies that might make supersonic flight more palatable (and satisfy regulators).

NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a test aircraft known as the X-59 QueSST, or Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. The X-59’s first flight is due in the 2021-2022 time frame.

Meanwhile, Aerion Supersonic, Boom Supersonic and Spike Aerospace are among a new crop of supersonic startups hoping to field planes and win FAA certification in the years ahead.

Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his company would assist Boom with engineering, design, manufacturing, flight testing and operations — and would take a purchase option on the first 10 airframes. Today’s announcement suggests that Virgin Galactic is now moving in a different direction.

For what it’s worth, Boom is due to roll out its prototype XB-1 supersonic jet in October.

Some wondered whether Virgin Galactic will be arriving too late to the supersonic soiree, or whether its plans for a high-speed aircraft were sufficiently realistic.

“Had to recheck the date on the calendar. Nope, not April 1,” Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble tweeted.

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin, meanwhile, tweeted an illustration showing SpaceX’s planned Starship super-rocket and wrote, “Mach 3 won’t cut it. The competition will be doing Mach 25.”

If Virgin Galactic’s supersonic airplane turns out to be vaporware, at least it’s cool-looking vaporware. Check out these renderings (all copyrighted by Virgin Galactic and used with permission):

Update for 2:30 p.m. PT Aug. 3: Virgin Galactic posted a second-quarter loss of $63 million with zero revenue today, sparking an after-hours drop in its share price. But that wasn’t the most significant news for space fans.

The company said it’s planning to conduct two powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket plane in New Mexico over the next few months. If those tests prove successful, Branson would get on board for a high-profile SpaceShipTwo flight in the first quarter of 2021.

Virgin Galactic also said it entered into deposit agreements with 12 customers for orbital spaceflights. In June, the company announced a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop a readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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Virgin Galactic, NASA team up for supersonic flight

Virgin Galactic says it’s signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to collaborate on the development of supersonic vehicles for civil applications — a technology that’s of interest to Boeing, one of Virgin Galactic’s recent investors.

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Boeing partners with Aerion for supersonic jet

Aerion AS2 supersonic jet
An artist’s conception shows Aerion’s AS2 supersonic business jet flying over New York City. (Aerion Illustration via Boeing)

Boeing says it’s making a significant investment in Aerion to accelerate the development of the Nevada-based company’s supersonic business jet.

The partnership announced today appears to be a closer tie than the relationships Aerion once had with two of Boeing’s rivals, Airbus and Lockheed Martin.

Neither Aerion nor Boeing disclosed financial terms of the investment, but Boeing said it would provide Aerion with engineering, manufacturing and flight test resources, as well as strategic vertical content, to bring Aerion’s AS2 jet to market.

The AS2 is designed to fly at speeds as high as Mach 1.4, or about 1,000 mph. The companies said the AS2 could save about three hours on a transatlantic flight while meeting environmental performance requirements.

First flight is projected to take place in 2023, which roughly meshes with the timeline for establishing a new regulatory framework for supersonic flights. Federal authorities banned supersonic passenger flights over land in 1973, largely due to concerns about sonic booms.

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Boom attracts $100M to build supersonic jet

Boom Supersonic jet
Boom Supersonic is assembling a subscale prototype called XB-1 in preparation for producing its Overture supersonic airliner. (Boom Supersonic Image)

Colorado-based Boom Supersonic says it has closed a $100 million Series B investment round to support the development of a Mach-2.2 commercial airliner called Overture.

The funding includes $56 million in new investment as well as $44 million in previously announced investments. Total funding for Boom now stands at more than $141 million. The round was led by Emerson Collective and includes funding from Y Combinator Continuity, Caffeinated Capital, SV Angel and individual investors, Boom said today.

“This new funding allows us to advance work on Overture, the world’s first economically viable supersonic airliner,” Boom founder and CEO Blake Scholl said in a news release. “Overture fares will be similar to today’s business class — widening horizons for tens of millions of travelers. Ultimately, our goal is to make high-speed flight affordable to all.”

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Lockheed Martin wins NASA’s nod for supersonic jet

Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator
An artist’s conception shows the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator at work. (NASA Illustration)

NASA says Lockheed Martin will be its partner in building a supersonic test plane that’s designed to muffle sonic booms and clear the way for a new boom in faster-than-sound passenger flights.

California-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. won the $247.5 million contract to build the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, or LBFD, after putting in the sole bid for the project, NASA officials said today.

NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, said boom-reducing aerodynamics will be a “game-changer” for civilian flight — a view that was voiced by other officials as well.

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Super-quiet supersonic jet design approved

Supersonic plane
The preliminary design for NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft has been cleared for takeoff. (NASA / Lockheed Martin Illustration)

NASA says it’s cleared a significant milestone on the path to reviving supersonic passenger jet travel in the U.S. with the completion of the preliminary design review for its low-boom experimental airplane.

The Low-Boom Flight Demonstration X-plane, or LBFD, is designed to create a soft “thump” rather than the loud sonic boom typically associated with supersonic airplanes. The boom is what led federal authorities to ban supersonic passenger flight over land in 1973.

The initial design stage for the LBFD is known as Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST. NASA’s plan, drawn up with Lockheed Martin as the lead contractor, calls for transforming QueSST into the LBFD and flying the plane over communities to collect the data that regulators would need to ease the ban.

The June 22 preliminary design review was a key step in the process.

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Boom picks up $33M to build supersonic jet

Boom supersonic jet
Boom Technology’s full-scale supersonic jet would carry 40 passengers. (Boom Photo)

Colorado-based Boom Technology has raised $33 million in a Series A round to build and fly its first supersonic jet, a one-third-scale prototype known as the XB-1 or “Baby Boom.” Testing the XB-1 would blaze the trail for a full-scale jet capable of taking 40 passengers from New York to London in less than three and a half hours for a $2,500 one-way ticket.

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Spike is still up in the air on supersonic jet factory

Spike Aerospace jet
An artist’s conception shows Spike Aerospace’s S-512 supersonic jet in flight. (Credit: Spike Aerospace)

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Boston-based Spike Aerospace is moving a bit more slowly than planned on its process to pick the site for a supersonic jet factory, the company’s top executive said today.

Washington state is still in the mix, but so are seven other states, said Vik Kachoria, Spike’s president and CEO.

“We’re not moving to Washington state just yet,” Kachoria said here at the Governor’s Aerospace Summit, presented by the Aerospace Futures Alliance of Washington. “Each region offers something interesting that we want to explore.”

At one time, the company had hoped to start narrowing down the field from Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts and the Carolinas by the end of this year. But Kachoria told GeekWire that the “down-select” would have to wait until 2017.

He also the schedule for building a subscale supersonic demonstrator would slip from mid-2018 to early 2019.

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