Chinese Engineers Model An Aircraft That Can Travel Seven Times The Speed of Sound

It’s only February, and already 2018 has been marked by serious progress toward real-life versions of futuristic transportation. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket – which could soon transport Mars colonists into space – launched successfully, driverless cars are being tested on the roads, and construction of Hyperloop tubes is well underway in Dubai.

Now, add to that list an innovative aircraft design that, if built into a full-size prototype, could travel the 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) between Beijing to New York in just two hours.

According to a paper in Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, a model of a hypersonic plane engineered at the Chinese Academy of Sciences successfully reached speeds of Mach 7 (9,000 kilometers per hour/ 5,600 miles per hour) during wind tunnel testing.

To achieve the title of hypersonic, a craft must travel at Mach 5 (five times faster than the speed of sound) or above. Currently, the fastest aircraft that can take off and land on its own is the SR-71 Blackbird, flying at Mach 3.2.

The challenge in creating hypersonic vehicles lies in striking a balance between a high lift-to-drag ratio and a high inner volume – essentially, the plane must have extremely aerodynamic wings and flaps that produce upwards lift without also producing too much friction in the surrounding air, while at the same time it must have enough room inside for equipment, engines, and personnel.

The configuration of the I Plane model (left), compared with a previous model (right). The total length, wingspan, and height of the model are 500, 300, and 131 mm, respectively. Cai et al./Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, 2018

As a reflection of how much this dilemma has stumped engineers, today’s high-speed jets are limited to waif-like designs that carry a pilot or two, surveillance technology, plus maybe a few missiles. Amazingly, the Chinese hypersonic plane scaled to the same size as a Boeing 737 can theoretically carry one-quarter the number of passengers (50 people), while cruising up to 10 times faster.

Dubbed the I Plane due to its resemblance to a capital “I”, the Chinese team’s model features a set of secondary, joined wings mounted on the rear that lay parallel to the stingray-like primary wings. Their study apparently demonstrates that this unique configuration provides high lift while redirecting the flight-destabilizing shock waves that occur when a craft travels faster than the speed of sound.

Of course, realized versions of the I Plane could also be put to use for military purposes. Popular Science speculates that although the model came out of the Key Laboratory of High Temperature Gas Dynamics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, it was likely developed using technology overlapping that of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’s recently unveiled “DF-17”, a hypersonic missile system with a range of 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers (1,120 to 1,550 miles). 

In the paper, however, the authors stick to pointing out the I Plane’s promise for peaceful, tourism-related applications.

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