China builds new hypersonic aircraft based on design abandoned by NASA

A NASA X-47A aircraft.
A NASA X-47A aircraft. Credit: Wikipedia

A team of researchers from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu, China, has built and tested a prototype hypersonic flight engine that is allegedly based on a design that NASA scrapped over 20 years ago.

Most hypersonic aircraft has an engine at the belly, but the experimental Two-Stage Vehicle (TSV) X-plane was driven by two separate engines on the sides of the vehicle. The original design was proposed by Ming Han Tang, a former chief engineer of NASA’s hypersonic program in the late 1990s reports South China Morning Post.

The two engines can work as regular turbine engines at lower speeds. With no moving parts, the configuration then allows the aircraft to quickly switch to high-speed mode as the aircraft attains hypersonic speeds – more than five times the speed of sound or even faster.

The TSV X-plane design was supposed to be verified through the Boeing Manta X-47C program. However, before the program could verify the viability of the design, it was terminated by the U.S. government due to its high costs and a series of technical issues. However, Tang’s idea attracted increasing attention because “understanding its work mechanism can provide important guidance to hypersonic plane and engine development,” the team behind the machine said in a paper published in the Chinese peer-reviewed Journal of Propulsion Technology.

Now, many years later, Professor Tan Huijun and colleagues at the Nanjing University have developed and tested a prototype machine with two side-opening inlets, similar to Ming’s blueprint, which was declassified in 2011. The team tested the prototype in a wind tunnel that simulated flight conditions at Mach 4 to Mach 8. The test showed that the engines were able to ignite even under the most challenging flight conditions. This means they should be able to conduct further tests and build new iterations of their prototype, reports SCMP.

But there are still some problems with the twin-engine design. The research team mentions including the possibility of strong turbulence. The hypersonic plane will be able to take ten passengers anywhere in the world within an hour.

China itself has a goal to have a fleet of hypersonic aircraft by the end of 2035 and expand the planes to carry 100 passengers by 2045 – although their purpose has not yet been made clear.