Virgin Galactic Pivots High-speed Aircraft Program in a Crowded Field

Credit: Douglas Messier

Virgin Galactic’s record of delays and broken promises raises doubts about its ambitious supersonic aircraft project as company founder Richard Branson fights to save his struggling empire in the midst of a global pandemic.

Updated on 10/27/20 at 12:39 p.m. PDT to include spending comparison of Virgin Orbit to Rocket Lab.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s dream of a suborbital Virgin Galactic vehicle zipping passengers between distant cities at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (6,174 km/h, 3,836 mph) is dead. At least for now.

In August, the space tourism company he founded pivoted to a slower supersonic Mach 3 (3,704 km/h, 2,302 mph) business jet. Virgin Galactic unveiled a mission concept for an aircraft that would carry 9-19 passengers at a cruising altitude of 60,000 ft (18,288 m).

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NASA Marks Continued Progress on X-59

NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane, or QueSST, will fly over communities in the United States to demonstrate quiet supersonic. (Credits: Lockheed Martin)

by Matt Kamlet
NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center

PALMDALE, Calif. — Assembly of NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology aircraft is continuing during 2020 and making good progress, despite challenges such as those imposed by the unexpected global pandemic.

NASA plans as early as 2024 to fly the X-59 over select communities on missions to gather information about how the public will react to the level of quiet supersonic flight noise the aircraft is designed to produce – if they hear anything at all.

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X-59 QueSST Wing Assembly

X-59 wing (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology, or QueSST, wing assembly is lifted by a crane and moved to another area of the manufacturing floor in preparation for wing skin installation. The aircraft is under construction at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® in Palmdale, California, and will fly for the first time in 2021. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

NASA’s X-59 Quiet Supersonic Research Aircraft Cleared for Final Assembly

Illustration of the completed X-59 QueSST landing on a runway. (Credits: Lockheed Martin)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA’s first large scale, piloted X-plane in more than three decades is cleared for final assembly and integration of its systems following a major project review by senior managers held Thursday at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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GAO: NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstrator Moving Forward

This rendering shows the Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept featuring two engines under the wings and one on top of the fuselage (not visible in this image).

NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin are moving toward a preliminary design review this summer of an ambitious plan to build an experimental aircraft that could help make overland supersonic passenger flights possible.

The Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) project is attempting to advance beyond the old Concorde airplanes, which was restricted to supersonic flights over water because of the loud sonic boom they made.

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X-plane Preliminary Design Model Tests Quiet Supersonic Technology

Samantha O’Flaherty finalizes the set-up of the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) Preliminary Design Model. (Credit: NASA/Chris Giersch)

HAMPTON, Va. (NASA PR) — Samantha O’Flaherty, Test Engineer for Jacobs Technology Inc., finalizes the set-up of the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) Preliminary Design Model inside the 14- by- 22 Foot Subsonic Tunnel at NASA Langley Research Center. Over the next several weeks, engineers will conduct aerodynamic tests on the 15% scale model and the data collected from the wind tunnel test will be used to predict how the vehicle will perform and fly in low-speed flight.

The QueSST Preliminary Design is the initial design stage of NASA’s planned Low-Boom Flight Demonstration experimental airplane, otherwise known as an X-plane.  This future X-plane is one of a series of X-planes envisioned in NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative, which aims to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise through innovations in aircraft design that depart from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape.