Virgin Galactic is partnering with NASA to develop supersonic point-to-point air travel

MOJAVE, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 10: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO SUBJECT SPECIFIC TV BROADCAST DOCUMENTARIES OR BOOK USE) Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes it's successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)
MOJAVE, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 10: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO SUBJECT SPECIFIC TV BROADCAST DOCUMENTARIES OR BOOK USE) Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes it's successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)
Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic today revealed a new partnership with NASA, in pursuit of the goal of developing a high-speed vehicle for point-to-point travel across Earth. NASA has been pursuing development of high-mach air travel itself, with the development of its Supersonic X-59 low-boon supersonic test plane built by Lockheed Martin, but this new partnership agreement with Virgin Galactic and its subsidiary The Spaceship Company specifically seeks to figure out a sustainable way to apply high-speed transportation technologies to civil and commercial aviation.

Virgin Galactic thinks it will be able to get a head start on this project specifically because of the work it has done to date on developing, engineering and flight-testing its existent vehicles, which include the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, and the SpaceShipTwo winged spacecraft that launches from the carrier to reach the edge of space. The design of the company's system uses traditional runways for take-off and landing, while the rocket-propelled SpaceShipTwo skims the outer edge of Earth's atmosphere at the boundary of space to provide its commercial tourist passengers with a trip that includes stunning views and a few minutes of weightlessness.

In fact, Virgin Galactic's technology does seem like a good fit for point-to-point high-speed travel. Perhaps best popularized by SpaceX and one of their many ambitious plans for their forthcoming Starship, point-to-point envisions traveling between two places on Earth at very high speeds either extremely high up in the atmosphere (much higher than current commercial planes go) or even potentially through space. The advantages of doing this are that you can go much faster as the atmosphere thins and friction and air resistance lower. The International Space Station, for instance, performs a full orbit around Earth once every 90 minutes.

A trip from NYC to Shanghai using Starship would take just 40 minutes, SpaceX has said, rather than the 16 hours it takes today. Virgin Galactic and NASA aren't yet near the stage where they're talking about trip times, but for comparison's sake, consider that SpaceShipTwo travels at a top speed of around 4,000 km/h (nearly 2,500 mph), while a Boeing 747 maxes out at about 988 km/h (just under 615 mph).

The new partnership between Virgin Galactic and NASA was formed under a Space Act Agreement, which is a type of agreement that NASA uses to work with organizations it deems able to help it fulfill its various goals, missions and program directives. It's early yet to imagine what this will look like exactly, but Virgin Galactic says in a press release that it will be "seeking to develop a vehicle for the next-generation of safe and efficient high speed air travel, with a focus on customer experience and environmental responsibility," and that it will be doing so in cooperation with its "industry partners."