The idea of flying to London from Sydney in two hours might seem hard to believe, but new research suggests it'll soon be possible — by travelling via space.
Passengers on board the suborbital flight — on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic — would be briefly launched into space before descending, ultimately slashing the current 22-hour flight time down to two hours. But there have been some obvious questions raised about the high-speed journey.
Suborbital flights could become mainstream within 10 years some aviation authorities suggest. Medical studies funded by the UK Civil Aviation Authority — as reported by The Times — report those on board do not need astronaut training, in fact, soon enough, anyone can jump on board.
A seat on board the Virgin Galactic flight will set keen flyers back a whopping $650,000 per person. But within 10 years, regulators claim it'll be affordable for everyone.
Can an aircraft really travel from Sydney to London in two hours?
Based on the information we have from scientific research, and from the progress Virgin Galactic has made, "it is realistic" Chrystal Zhang, associate professor of aerospace engineering and aviation, told Yahoo News Australia.
"But you never know because sometimes there might be some kind of scientific drawback," she said. "I would say it's a kind of a feasible arrangement."
For it to happen, the aircraft must travel at roughly 6,000 km/h, it's been suggested — significantly faster than a commercial plane which flies at around 925 km/h.
Are there negative effects on the body?
Typically, when a person is launched into space at G-force speed , gravitational forces are placed on the body causing a heavy chest, making it hard to breathe, 9 News reported. It can also reduce oxygen, affect the rhythm of the heart and lead blood to pool away from the brain, the study reportedly said.
But the medical trials (involving 24 people) have so far found that those taking such flights would not need to be young or super-fit, with older people also able to cope with space travel. "Physiological responses are likely to be benign for most passengers," Dr Ryan Anderton, the CAA’s medical lead for space flight, said as reported by the Herald Sun.
Professor Zhang said the study is still very early and therefore "very limited". She said these things can very much "happen to anyone" and suspects "more issues could be released" or even eliminated.
"We know that astronauts have been trained intensively in order to fly into space," she said. "But when this kind of flight is available for the general public, it's a really good question to decide who exactly is physically suitable to fly, and how we determine whether they would be physically suitable to fly."
What does this mean for future airline travel?
Space travel — offered by Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’s space tourism companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — is currently targeted at the super-rich, but regulators are confident flights will be "accessible to anybody" in the future.
Professor Zhang said there's a "booming interest" and it is "extremely exciting" however it won't completely eliminate air travel as we know it.
"The commercial aircraft, the jet, would still be available for airlines to provide," she predicts. "It would be the choice of the public and also the airline who would decide whether they would provide this type of service to a certain segment of the market."
"But this kind of flying into space and landing, cutting the journey very short, I would say, at least at the beginning when it is available in 10 years' time, [will] still [be] a kind of a luxurious flight — only affordable by those who can afford," she added.
What will it cost in the future?
Currently, space travel costs upwards of $600,000, and while it's not yet known how much future flights will cost, Professor Zhang isn't confident it will become "affordable" to the masses. She says it's still "a very niche market", and until it becomes "a mass product like current airline products" it will remain that way.
"I doubt in 10 years' time that will [happen]," she said. "It'll still be new".
"Once the material, the technology etc becomes readily available, only then the cost would be reduced".
Do you have a story tip? Email: email@example.com.