The era of hypersonic tech has arrived. Unbeknownst too many, a race for hypersonic aircraft and weapons has flourished among global superpowers (China, Russia, and the United States), who realize that the first to possess these technologies will revolutionize their civilian and military programs.
In Beijing's bid for the first place, Chinese researchers have revealed a novel design for an ultra-fast plane they say will be able to take dozens of people and tonnes of cargo - "anything from flowers to bombs, and likewise, passengers could be tourists or military special forces" - from Beijing to New York in about two hours.
The plane would travel around 6,000km/h (3,700mph) or about five times faster than the speed of sound, according to the team, which is also “involved in China’s top-secret hypersonic weapons programme,” according to the South China Morning Post. Today’s current journey from Beijing to New York depending on the jet stream is roughly 13 to 14 hours. An 80% reduction in travel time is a game changer for civilian aviation, but also a red flag if the aircraft is converted into a hypersonic heavy bomber.
“It will take only a couple of hours to travel from Beijing to New York at hypersonic speed,” head of hypersonic research Cui Kai wrote in a paper this month in Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy, published by Science China Press.
The team said they had tested a scaled-down prototype of the hypersonic plane in a wind tunnel at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Researchers carried out aerodynamics evaluations on the aircraft pushing it to 8,600km/h (5343 mph) and discovered it performed exceptionally well, with low drag and high lift.
Cui and his crew, who hail from the academy’s Key Laboratory of High-Temperature Gas Dynamics, under the Institute of Mechanics, have dubbed their hypersonic plane the “I-plane” (so far Apple has not launched a trademark infringement suit against the team’s “I-Plane”). The South China Morning Post explains the “name comes from the shadow cast by the aircraft on the ground – in the shape of a capital “I” – when it is bearing down like a dive-bomber.”
The South China Morning Post discussed why the radical design of the I-Plane is a game changer for aeronautical engineering but stresses the aircraft is still in the experimental stage and many years out from actual development.
With two layers of wings, the I-plane design resembles that of biplanes used during the first world war. The earliest type of aircraft, most biplanes disappeared after the 1930s as plane designers pursued higher speeds and fuel efficiency.
Fast-forward to 2018, and China’s latest hypersonic vehicle features lower wings that reach out from the middle of the fuselage like a pair of embracing arms. A third flat, bat-shaped wing meanwhile extends over the back of the aircraft.
The researchers said this biplane design means the aircraft will be able to handle significantly heavier payload than existing hypersonic vehicles that have a streamlined shape and delta wings.
At extremely high speeds, they said the double layer of wings works together to reduce turbulence and drag while increasing the aircraft’s overall lift capacity.
The amount of lift generated by the new hypersonic vehicle was about 25 per cent that of a commercial jet of the same size, according to the study. That means an I-plane as big as a Boeing 737 could carry up to five tonnes of cargo, or 50 passengers. A typical Boeing 737 can carry up to 20 tonnes of cargo or around 200 passengers.
While Cui’s design has provided an answer to the aerodynamic configuration problem encountered by previous hypersonic plane models, many issues still need to be tackled for this to move beyond the conceptual stage.
All known hypersonic vehicles being developed worldwide are still in the experimental stage because of the many technological challenges that exist, and none of them can take passengers yet.
Existing hypersonic vehicles – such as the US Air Force’s X-51 Waverider and China’s WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle – have capacity for just a small, lightweight payload such as a compact nuclear warhead. This has severely limited the application of the technology.
Travelling at hypersonic speed will also generate a huge amount of heat, possibly exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 Fahrenheit), and if that heat cannot be insulated or dispersed effectively, it could prove fatal. Although researchers have found potential solutions to this problem – such as using heat-resistant materials and a liquid-cooling system to push the heat out – this aspect again is still experimental.
The I-plane, however, could be a game changer, according to a Chinese aircraft designer working on military research who said Cui’s team also worked on the development of China’s most advanced hypersonic weapons, so the tests would likely move from wind tunnel to open field.
He added that the hypersonic vehicle could potentially be used to transport anything from flowers to bombs, and likewise, passengers could be tourists or military special forces.
“We’re talking about something like a hypersonic heavy bomber,” he said. The paper has sent ripples through the hypersonic research community, he added. “It’s a crazy design, but somehow they’ve managed to make it work,” the researcher said.
The project reflected China’s ambition to overtake the US on developing new strategic weapons, according to the researcher.
“This will require original rather than knock-off designs,” he said, adding that the I-plane was part of a new family of aircraft in development that had not been reported until now. “It could lead to a huge step forward in hypersonic technology,” he said.
China has tested various types of hypersonic vehicles over the Gobi Desert in recent years, some capable of reaching 10 times the speed of sound.
It is also building the world’s fastest wind tunnel to simulate hypersonic flight at speeds of up to 12 kilometres per second (or 43,200km/h). At such velocity, a Chinese hypersonic vehicle could reach the west coast of the United States in less than 14 minutes.
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Last Wednesday, Admiral Harry Harris, who heads the military’s Pacific Command, warned lawmakers that, "China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours … we’re falling behind."
"We need to continue to pursue that and in a most aggressive way to ensure that we have the capabilities to both defend against China’s hypersonic weapons and to develop our own offensive hypersonic weapons."” Harris added.
And so, perhaps for the first time since World War II, as a radical, game-changing new military technology arrives, it is not the US that is at the forefront.
For those unfamiliar, below is a documentary by the Rand Corporation on the dangers and opportunities of hypersonic weapons.