Rolls-Royce has partnered with aerospace firm Reaction Engines to create a propulsion system for a new supersonic business jet designed by Virgin Galactic.
Richard Branson-owned Virgin Galactic this month unveiled the plane’s design that will fly up to 19 passengers at up to three times the speed of sound.
Reaction Engines, based in Oxfordshire, signed a £20 million partnership with Rolls-Royce that will include sharing of the technology.
If it goes ahead as planned, the cutting-edge plane will fly at more than 60,000 feet – twice as high as a traditional commercial plane – and complete a trip from London to New York in 90 minutes.
Reaction Engines employs 200 staff and has been researching next generation space propulsion systems since it was founded in 1988.
Virgin Galactic first revealed its plans for a supersonic jet earlier this year, by announcing a partnership with NASA.
Through this partnership, the craft design passes a mission concept review – it can ‘meet the high-level requirements and objectives of the mission.’
Rolls-Royce is the main engine partner on the project but with work with Reaction Engines to create more efficient engines capable of such high speeds.
This will include using the firms thermal technology – designed to reduce the temperature of compressed air rushing into an engine from over 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit to room temperature in a 20th of a second.
They will integrate this technology into their gas turbine engine and hybrid-electric systems to make them more efficient while carrying larger payloads.
Reaction has a number of projects in development including a single-stage-to orbit space plane, and a number of hypersonic engine technologies.
Its Sabre engine is capable of operating at more than 2,500mph and combines a gas turbine with the properties of a rocket – its not known to what extent the sabre engine will be used by Rolls-Royce in the Virgin Galactic aircraft.
Mark Thomas, CEO of Reaction, told the Times that their technology was transformational – something completely recognised by Rolls-Royce.
‘My assumption is they think there will be a battleground for technology on the other side of this pandemic,’ he said when talking about the partnership.
The agreement between the two firms has been dubbed a ‘strategic partnership’ designed to investigate how designs by Reaction can help Rolls-Royce.
Thomas told the Telegraph: ‘Our design has demonstrated cooling of 900C in less time than the blink of an eye. We can take air from temperature of molten lava to a level where you could comfortably stand in it.’
He said the deal – which includes a further £20 million investment from Rolls-Royce which already holds a stake in the Oxfordshire firm – was an endorsement of their technology from one of the biggest players in the industry.
George Whitesides, chief space officer, Virgin Galactic said, ‘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.’
‘We are pleased to collaborate with the innovative team at Rolls-Royce as we strive to develop sustainable, cutting-edge propulsion systems for the aircraft, and we are pleased to be working with the FAA to ensure our designs can make a practical impact from the start.’
‘We have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high speed travel.’
The firm is set to designed customized cabins to address customer needs, including business or first class seating arrangements.
Virgin Galactic is aiming to lead the way for of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel, the firm explained.
The Virgin Team continues to work on its aircraft and are gearing up to start the next phase of design – including specific system architectures.
They will also look at determining which materials to use in the design and manufacturing of the aircraft and its cabin.
Virgin designers will also work to address key challenges in thermal management, maintenance, noise, emissions, and economics that routine high speed commercial flights would entail.
Pricing for seats have not been revealed, but Virgin Galactic is selling spots on its tourist spaceplane – VSS Unity – for $250,000.
The deal between Rolls-Royce and Reaction could go beyond just the Virgin Galactic aircraft, according to Thomas.
Rolls has been working with Reaction Engines since 2018 after a contract by the Ministry of Defence asked them to investigate high-speed military aircraft.
The new move widens the arrangement to include civil aircraft including the new Virgin Galactic aircraft – with flights possible within a decade.