Down Under in two hours? The end of long-haul flights is coming

bondi beach sydney - Getty
bondi beach sydney - Getty

Passengers will be able to fly from the UK to Sydney in less than two hours within a decade, according to new research.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is conducting studies into suborbital “Earth to Earth” space flights, which would see commercial aircraft exiting the Earth’s atmosphere to cut travel times to a fraction of what they are today.

Flying from London to Sydney for example, which usually takes 22 hours, could be reduced to just two hours.

With Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic already investing heavily in space exploration, the idea of affordable high-speed space transportation is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Here is everything you need to know about the dawning of suborbital space flights.

How would it work?

These A to B suborbital space flights are not to be confused with experiential space tourism flights, like the ones being developed by Virgin Galactic.

In layman terms, a suborbital flight would involve a high G-force rocket launch to an altitude of up to 62 miles (100 km), where the craft would reach space but not have the required speed to stay in the Earth’s orbit. The craft would then take a suborbital trajectory to its destination, where it would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at a G-force of 6G for landing.

How long would it take?

Right now it takes just over 22 hours to fly from London to Sydney, with a stop, although Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas, plans to launch direct flights between the two cities by 2025. The flights are dubbed ‘Project Sunrise’ because passengers will see two sunrises during the 19-hour flight. This comes after Qantas in 2018 launched direct flights from London to Perth, taking 17 hours.

In February 1985 a BA Concorde flight chartered by Cunard broke the record (which stands today), flying from London to Sydney in just 17 hours, 3 minutes and 45 seconds with stop-offs for refuelling in Bahrain, Colombo and Perth.

A suborbital space flight, it is thought, could transport you just about anywhere on the planet in under two hours.

Is suborbital flying safe?

In regards to the effects on the passengers, yes, according to the latest CAA research.

The flight would involve G forces of up to 4G at take off for 20 to 30 seconds, and then a G-force of up to 6G at re-entry for 10 to 15 seconds. During these sections of the flight, passengers might experience compression on the chest, difficulty breathing, partial vision loss and a reduction of oxygen intake.

But according to the CAA’s latest study, facilitated by the RAF and conducted with King’s College London, older passengers will be just as safe as young and healthy passengers.

“Physiological responses are likely to be benign for most passengers,” said Dr Ryan Anderton, the CAA’s medical lead for space flight. And because older passengers have “stiffer arteries”, they could actually face a reduced risk of the pooling of blood away from the brain.

The research found that tensing lower legs or buttocks during high G forces could reduce any side-effects, as it helps to maintain blood flow to the brain.

However, rocket-powered space travel comes with inherent dangers, and any company selling commercial suborbital space flight tickets would need to complete hundreds of test flights before carrying paying passengers. It is possible that suborbital flight operators could trial cargo transportation before taking passengers on these high-speed routes.

How much will it cost?

The suborbital space tourism tickets being sold by Virgin Galactic are going for £350,000 per seat right now, but regulators say that eventually high-speed intercontinental travel will be affordable to everyone.

Right now it is impossible to predict the price point, and whether it will come close to the present cost of a return ticket from London to Sydney – around £750 to £1,150.

Is ten years a realistic timeframe?

In July 2021, Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson boarded a suborbital flight on this aircraft - Getty
In July 2021, Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson boarded a suborbital flight on this aircraft - Getty

Given the ongoing delays of Virgin Galactic’s space flights, 2033 sounds quite optimistic for the arrival of affordable commercial two-hour flights from London to Sydney.

Virgin started taking bookings on Virgin Galactic flights in 2005 and the first flights were due to take place in 2007. However, the company faced repeated setbacks, most notably during the fatal VSS Enterprise test flight in 2014.

More recently there have been positive steps in the right direction. The Virgin CEO, Richard Branson, boarded a suborbital flight in July 2021 – lasting approximately one hour – and less than a fortnight later Jeff Bezos boarded his own space flight via the Blue Origin company.

However, it is unknown when the first paying customers will reach space, and given the significant infrastructure and research required, the dawning of A to B suborbital flying is even further off.

Is this the same as supersonic flying?

No, although supersonic aviation also significantly reduces travel times, and it could be making a comeback.

A US-based company called Boom Technology is developing a plane, Overture, that can travel at 1,300 miles per hour, around twice the speed of sound, with a range of over 4,000 nautical miles. This means that passengers could board in London and arrive in New York 3.5 hours later – around half the time of a traditional flight.

American Airlines has put in an order for 20 of the Overture planes, known as the Son of Concorde, with the option to buy 40 more. It is expected that the first jet will be produced in 2025 and could carry passengers by 2029 – 26 years after the final Concorde flight touched the tarmac at Filton Airfield, in October 2003.

Is suborbital flying environmentally friendly?

Some scientists have raised concerns about the dawning of suborbital flights, given that launching a rocket requires a large amount of propellants which emit substances into the atmosphere, plus excessive heat and noise pollution. There are also concerns around the unknowns of flying in the upper atmosphere.

“You are emitting pollutants in places where you don’t normally emit it,” Karen Ronsenlof from the Chemical Sciences Laboratory at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told “We really need to understand: if we increase these things, what is the potential damage?”

Some experts have urged caution that there are currently no regulations around the fuels used by rockets and their impact on the environment. And while the number of rocket launches per year is currently relatively small (180 in 2022, compared to 9.3 million flights), the industry is predicted to rapidly accelerate in the coming years.

Where would they take off and land?

The idea of suborbital commercial ‘Earth to Earth’ space flights (that is, not just a tourism experience) was presented by Elon Musk in 2017.

He envisioned launch and landing facilities offshore from major cities – far enough to reduce any disruption of sonic booms and rocket launch noise levels, but close enough to ferry passengers to their final destination in reasonable time. Richard Branson echoed the vision at a conference in 2019.

“The next chapter in the great story of commercial aviation [will] see spaceport America become linked with a global network of spaceports, and Virgin Galactic operating transcontinental supersonic space flights, delivering passengers anywhere on the planet within a couple of hours,” he said.

In the UK, the primary hub could be none other than Newquay. Spaceport Cornwall has signed a memorandum of understanding with the US company Sierra Space, which would allow for commercial suborbital flights to land in Newquay. There are plans for six more UK spaceports.

The verdict

Given the decades-long delays to Virgin Galactic’s space tourism project, and the relative infancy of the idea of A to B suborbital transportation, it is a stretch to imagine this being a viable mode of transport by 2033.

However, history does show that things can progress at high speeds when it comes to air travel. The number of airline passengers grew from 6,000 in 1930 to 450,000 by 1934, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Could intercontinental suborbital flights see a similar boom? Watch this space.

Would you board a suborbital flight? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.