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Virgin Galactic unveils designs for Mach 3 supersonic aircraft

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Virgin Galactic unveils designs for Mach 3 supersonic aircraft
Virgin Galactic's supersonic aircraft would be capable of cruising at 60,000 feet on the edge of space, the company said. Illustration courtesy Virgin Galactic

Aug. 3 (UPI) -- Virgin Galactic, a space tourism offshoot of the business empire founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, unveiled designs for what could become the first commercial supersonic passenger jet in nearly two decades.

The company released first-stage designs of the proposed aircraft, which would accommodate as many as 19 passengers and fly at an altitude above 60,000 feet.

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Virgin also announced a memorandum of understanding with British engine maker Rolls-Royce, which calls for "sustainable, cutting-edge propulsion systems" for the aircraft, which is designed to reach a top flight speed of Mach 3.

No supersonic airliner has been in service anywhere in the world since the British-French Concorde was retired in 2003. Its engines were designed by Rolls-Royce.

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Virgin Galactic said the milestones follow the completion of a "Mission Concept Review" in coordination with NASA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which ensured that the plane's design concept can meet requirements and objectives of the mission.

"We envision [this] as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience," said Virgin Galactic Chief Space Officer George Whitesides.

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

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"This marks an exciting step forward in Virgin Galactic's development of a new generation of high speed aircraft," the company said in a statement.

"Last week, the FAA's Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation reviewed the project direction and authorized FAA resources to work with the Virgin Galactic team to begin to outline a certification framework during the pre-project guidance phase."

Virgin Galactic also encompasses efforts to develop reusable spacecraft capable of sending tourists to the edge of space for about $250,000 per passenger. Virgin has said it's in final test stages and has already received hundreds of cash deposits.

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Branson sold off millions of shares in Virgin Galactic in May to aid the Virgin Group's travel business amid depressed demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of U.S. and foreign companies have spent millions in recent years hoping to restart commercial supersonic travel. Aerion is planning to build supersonic passenger jets at a factory near Cape Canaveral, Fla., with the first planes built in 2023 and testing to begin in 2024.

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