Virgin Galactic has formed a partnership with Rolls-Royce to develop a supersonic business jet that will fly at three times the speed of sound — making the journey from London to New York only 90 minutes. The aircraft, on which Nasa has also collaborated, would fly between nine and 19 passengers and crew at an altitude above 60,000 feet, according to a design unveiled yesterday.

Virgin Galactic said that it aimed to make high-speed air travel “practical, sustainable, safe and reliable”. George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief space officer, said: “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 … We look forward to opening up a new frontier in high-speed travel.”

The company, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has completed a mission concept review, a crucial early step in the process. It is now working with the Federal Aviation Administration center for emerging concepts and innovation to develop a process for certification of the jet. The company has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce, whose engines powered Concorde, to develop the propulsion systems.

A supersonic business jet that will fly at three times the speed of sound.

It is not the first company to take on the challenge of developing the next generation of commercial, passenger-carrying, supersonic jets and the project is separate from Virgin Galactic’s development of SpaceShipTwo, a sub-orbital rocketship to take thrill-seekers and scientists on excursions to the edge of space at $250,000 a seat. The company believes that the technological know-how gained in the course of SpaceShipTwo’s development will give it an edge in the race to provide supersonic passenger travel.

Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Aerion, Spike Aerospace and Boom Supersonic are all working on high-speed passenger travel aiming to use “quiet-boom” technology that would reduce the sonic booms that limited where Concorde could operate. Boom, a start-up in Colorado in which Virgin Galactic was an investor, aims by 2030 to launch Overture, a passenger jet that would fly from London to New York in three and a quarter hours carrying up to 75 people. It has said that it expects to produce a scaled prototype vehicle, the XB-1, in October. SpaceX is working on a rocket that may take passengers to Mars, traveling at Mach 25 — technology that could also be channeled into Earth-bound passenger travel.

No timeline for the Virgin Galactic vehicle’s evolution or target date for operation has been released. Concorde, which retired in 2003, flew at Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound, or about 1,300mph. Virgin Galactic envisages an aircraft that would reach Mach 3, about 2,300mph, using “state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel”.

Virgin Galactic, which posted a $60 million loss in the first quarter of 2020, hosted its second-quarter earnings call on Monday.