Is This Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipThree?

Credit: CIC Saudi Arabia

This image was posted on Twitter by Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communications. It appears to be from an event announcing the non-binding memorandum of understanding under which Saudi Arabia would invest $1 billion in the Virgin Group’s space companies (Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company). Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson appears to be on stage.

The press release announcing the deal mentions that the funding would “accelerate our programme for point to point supersonic space travel,” a plan that Branson has long talked about but for which there has been almost no details. That vehicle has been unofficially called SpaceShipThree.

I don’t know if this is that, or how accurate the illustration is if it indeed represents the vehicle mentioned in the press release. But, it’s interesting nonetheless.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Weird. I get X-30/X-43 vibes, with a touch of X-33 thrown in there. Have to imagine this verrry low TRL within VG, although I’ve always wondered what those people do with their long down time between flights…maybe they tinker on stuff like this.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    lol, They can’t even fly SS2!

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Well they can easily just scale up those hybrid motors….oh wait no they can’t.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I think this was a movie back in 1983 called Starflight The Plane That Couldn’t Land.. Starring of all people Lee Majors. I guess Virgin is a space program barely alive, maybe they think they can build it, perhaps they think they can make it better, faster …. oh wait, that was only supposed to cost 6 million bucks.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    SpaceShipThree?…..Put me in hibernation and wake me in the year 2117 so I could witness it’s first test flight.

  • Douglas Messier

    Oh man. They suckered in poor Hal Linden and Ray Milland to be it. Only rated 4.8 out of 10 stars on IMDB.

  • Douglas Messier

    SS2 probably won’t make money. LauncherOne is a low margin business. So, what would inspire a billion dollar investment? Point to point supersonic space travel. The next big thing. A program whose technological and regulatory challenges could make the problems with SS2 look like a speed bump. Selling the dream. We’ll see if they can execute.

  • Geoff T

    “The fictional story of the first “hypersonic” commercial passenger plane, which can make the flight from New York to London in a mere four hours.”

    That works out as half an hour slower than regular Concorde flights of the time!

  • This is at all believable and Musk’s point to point transport isn’t?
    Branson made a bad bet by using a hybrid engine by assuming SS1 could be easily scaled up. Rutan did a good job of winning the X-prize with a highly experimental vehicle. Branson is behind the 8 ball. Can’t see him keeping on throwing money at it. Amazing that he can attract a billion from the oil ticks.

  • Douglas Messier

    I would imagine if they used rockets it would be scaled up liquid version of launcherone engines.

  • MattZip

    Unfortunately Branson didn’t know he was betting. Scaled Composites had no idea the motor didn’t scale well..

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I laughed at that too. The rest of the story line was that somehow they find themselves in orbit after something goes wrong in such a ‘hypersonic’ flight. Perhaps the writers of the film knew of a shortcut to orbital velocities that allows one to boost to orbital kinetic energy levels by tapping into external energy sources, maybe that’s what Virgin is trying to tap into. 🙂 Perhaps the power of the pen is more mighty than the internal fuel reserve.

  • Vladislaw

    gosh .. I heard they would be doing the drop tests by 2104 …

  • duheagle

    When made-for-TV movies were a relative novelty back in the 60’s, Majors starred in one of the first to get some critical praise, The Ballad of Andy Crocker, about a Vietnam vet who experiences a rocky return to civilian life. Not all his subsequent forays into the genre were of comparable merit, unfortunately.

  • duheagle

    Looks to me like what you’d get if you mated an F-18 to a Concorde.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Yah, definitely see some Concorde in there. The anhedral wing tips look familiar, but can’t place them. I think maybe there’s some sci-fi spaceship that has them.

  • Jak

    I never understood why they didn’t design it for 2 hydrid motors instead of trying to scale. Anyway, water under the bridge now.

  • Hemingway

    Does anyone have a copy of the non-binding memorandum of understanding beyween Branson and Saudi Arabia? That would be revealing.

  • Yeah, that’s like THE main reason you do multiengine rockets, airplanes, boats, ETC. There isn’t a RELIABLE engine big enough for your application: so you strap together 2 or 4 or whatever in the meantime until technology catches up.
    747 used 4 engines, 777 uses 2.
    F-15 used 2 engines, F-35 uses 1.
    Saturn V used 5 and worked, N-1 used… we’re all sorry for the N-1.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Looks a modernize version of the old B-70 even to the folding wings. Should create a lot of jobs at Mojave building it.

  • Charles Lurio

    There’s a recent photo of Branson sticking out of the window of WK2 (or is it SS2 Unity) and in his right hand he’s holding a model that looks a lot like this – if I recall correctly.

  • Paul451

    Speaking of Valkyrie, there’s the XB-70.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    Suddenly FH

  • ThomasLMatula
  • duheagle

    Or maybe just a cluster of the existing LauncherOne engines. The Newton 3 is pretty powerful. Close to the same thrust as a Merlin 1A.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Damn, all I remembered about XB-70 was its tragic accident. Totally forgot about it drooping wing tips and compression lift. You and TLM get upvotes! There’s plenty of up arrows for everybody!

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    You’re right! I had forgotten about its drooping wing tips.

  • Dave Salt

    I believe Branson’s new vehicle will employ a revolutionary propulsion system first described by Douglas Adams in his book Mostly Harmless…

    ‘Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws. The Hingefreel people of Arkintoofle Minor did try to build spaceships that were powered by bad news but they didn’t work particularly well and were so extremely unwelcome whenever they arrived anywhere that there wasn’t really any point in being there.’

    …which is something that the tax payers of New Mexico would probably agree with.

  • Michael Halpern

    With rockets its also about manufacturing and engine out, F9 (9 engines on a relatively small rocket) FH (27 engines at take off), BFR 31 engines and so on.

    N-1’s problems were because KORD didn’t work

  • Ron Fenn

    Do you think the Saudi’s will flock to Spaceport America, to see how it’s done?

  • I certainly agree that KORD didn’t work, but I would take more of a systems approach. Why did they need such a complicated and unreliable controller in the first place? Because Russia couldn’t produce a large main engine. KORD was the bandaid, not the root problem. SpaceX isn’t putting 70-100 engines on their big rocket, they are making a bigger engine to make the problem more manageable. Few engines on N-1 would have led to a simpler KORD that might have actually worked. It was no walk in the park for the F-1 though – they destroyed a lot of engines to get the simplicity of only 5 engines.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    I’m immediately skeptical of all suborbital point-to-point ideas.

  • Michael Halpern

    Well if not bigger, certainly more powerful, the biggest advantage of BFR though, isn’t just its size, but the fact that in orbit refueling means anything it can get to LEO it can get almost anywhere in the inner solar system certainly anywhere in Earth or lunar orbit. A fact that I doubt is lost on many people who saw the presentation

  • Michael Halpern

    solid fuel and hybrid rocket engines have a distinct problem especially when reuse is intended the fueling process is complicated, hybrid engines are a bit easier to control than their solid counterparts and simpler than the liquid engines, but fueling them is always going to be labor intensive, unless you could somehow spray the solid propellant into the combustion chamber with the oxidizer at which point you might as well use liquid fuel, then your only option is to put the fuel into the rocket directly.

    similarly you cant just make a liquid version of a hybrid engine, they are fundamentally different, solid and hybrid engines are basically external combustion to the internal combustion of liquid fuel, not a perfect analogy, but still

  • duheagle

    One alternative that might have worked for SpaceShipTwo would have been to cluster smaller hybrid engine modules that were designed like ammunition – slide in, slide out, like reloading a revolver. You’d just need a quick-disconnect fitting of some sort at the rear to mate up with the internal oxidizer plumbing and some sort of electrical plug to carry current for ignition. This would have obviated hybrid scalability problems and might have gotten VG into revenue service a decade ago.

  • duheagle

    Given the quite modest total delta-V of something like SS2, you’re certainly entitled to be skeptical of any scheme to use it for sub-orbital point-to-point service.

  • Michael Halpern

    nice idea, the big problem I see with that is large moving parts in a system that undergoes substantial stress from acceleration.

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