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China’s spaceplane program making hypersonic strides

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China’s spaceplane program making hypersonic strides

China’s world-best hypersonic wind tunnel has apparently tested new age spaceplane designed for military and reconnaissance roles

By GABRIEL HONRADA
JULY 20, 2023

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China's spaceplane program is gaining altitude. Image: Twitter

China has just tested a new type of air-launched spaceplane design in its ultra-powerful hypersonic wind tunnel, with the futuristic craft designed for commercial, reconnaissance and military roles.

The Chinese government has released footage of the world’s most powerful wind tunnel performing a scale separation test of what appears to be an air-launched spaceplane from a mothership aircraft, The Warzone reported citing a report aired by state-run China Central Television’s (CCTV) Channel 13.

The Warzone notes that the spaceplane’s design looks like designs seen in wind tunnel test pictures and an accompanying video the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) released in 2019. However, the report says there are no immediate indications to show that the two tests are related.

In June 2023, Asia Times reported on China’s JF-22 hypersonic wind tunnel’s progress after passing an evaluation the previous month. It can reportedly simulate the atmosphere in which a spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, according to Chinese scientists from the National Natural Science Foundation of China quoted in media reports.

The scientists confirmed that the JF-22’s detonation-driven high-enthalpy shock tunnel project’s performance indicators, which include effective test time, temperature, pressure and nozzle flow, had achieved international standards.

Its goal is to accelerate the development of a space-to-earth shuttle system, and, if successful, achieve a 90% cost reduction for launching satellites and spacecraft.

China started building the JF-22 in 2018 and completed it in August 2021 with a length of 167 meters, a diameter of four meters, and sustainable airflow of three to 10 kilometers per second.

That makes it the world’s largest and fastest hypersonic wind tunnel, capable of simulating hypersonic flight conditions up to Mach 30 for a maximum of 130 milliseconds. In contrast, LENS II, the most advanced US hypersonic wind tunnel, can only reach Mach 7 with a maximum runtime of 30 milliseconds.

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The JF-22 wind tunnel can simulate the environment in which a spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere. Photo: China Central TV

Moreover, Asia Times reported in September 2022 about the completion of China’s Sichuan-based free-piston driven hypersonic shock tunnel, currently the largest facility of its type worldwide.

It can simulate extreme flight conditions up to Mach 33, or 2.5 to 11.5 kilometers per second. The facility has a diameter of 80 centimeters, twice the size of the X3 Expansion Tube at the University of Queensland in Australia, which was previously the largest facility of its kind.


As with the JF-22, the Sichuan-based facility can provide ground testing support for developing hypersonic vehicles such as scramjet-powered aircraft by simulating the escape velocity from Earth’s atmosphere. At the same time, it can contribute to other types of missions, such as putting Chinese astronauts on the moon.

However, that type of hypersonic test facility is limited by its short simulation length, which lasts only a thousandth of a second, which is too short for some experiments. The new facility is thus expected to work with other wind tunnels to overcome that limitation.

China’s J-22 and Sichuan-based free-piston driven hypersonic shock tunnel will both be instrumental in China’s spaceplane, which may be built as a multi-mission platform and serve as the basis for future space weapons.

Asia Times reported in May 2023 on the successful return of China’s Shenlong mini spaceplane, which touched down in the Gobi Desert after 276 days in orbit after being launched in August of the previous year. While Shenlong’s flight was much shorter than the US X-37B, which spent 908 days in orbit, it was still a major milestone for China’s space program.

Since its August 2022 launch, China’s Shenlong mini spaceplane has conducted multiple large maneuvers that have raised its altitude and demonstrated formation flying.


It appears to be self-propelled in two or three docking or capture missions. China’s Shenlong and its successor designs may also launch satellites into orbit, conduct reconnaissance missions and perform military tasks.

A reusable mass satellite launch platform is critical to establishing satellite constellations, which major world powers increasingly view as a strategic asset. China’s spaceplane mothership is thus a vital reusable launch platform.

This month, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on the race between China and the US to find ways to cheaply and efficiently launch low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which are the building blocks of satellite constellations for high-speed broadband internet access.

WSJ noted that 360 million people in China still lack internet access, with LEO satellites viewed as an ideal solution to provide internet access in remote areas. The report also notes that reusable satellite launch vehicles can save significant sums on launch costs for building satellite constellations.

WSJ also noted that China plans to build 7,808 LEO broadband internet satellites, but no enterprise in China has as of yet created a reusable launch platform like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. However, China’s Shenlong spaceplane and similar designs may serve as reusable mass satellite launch platform options.


Hypersonic test facilities may also be vital for developing advanced reconnaissance drones that can fly at supersonic and hypersonic speeds to evade enemy air defenses.

In April 2023, Asia Times reported on China’s rocket-powered supersonic WZ-8 drone, a cutting-edge reconnaissance system that can gather real-time mapping data to inform strategy or pre-determine missile strike targets in preparation for a future conflict. Leaked documents have shown the flight paths for WZ-8 missions over Taiwanese and South Korean airspace.

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The WZ-8 reconnaissance drone on display at Airshow China Zhuhai in 2022. Photo: Wikipedia


In addition to being a reusable mass satellite launch platform and high-speed reconnaissance asset, China’s spaceplane mothership design may also serve as a fractional orbital bombardment platform (FOBS).

Ritwik Gupta notes in a June 2023 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that FOBS is a payload delivered into LEO and then re-enters the atmosphere to bombard a target before completing a full orbit.

Gupta notes that a FOBS has several advantages over traditional ballistic missiles, including global range, the ability to launch attacks from multiple directions and a shorter flight time versus intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

He writes that while the Soviet Union created FOBS in the 1960s, they were less accurate than ICBMs, their time-to-target advantage was neutralized by enhanced US space-based detection and their use was explicitly prohibited by the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II (SALT II).

However, Gupta says combining hypersonic weapons technology with FOBS can solve the latter’s limitations, as hypersonic weapons can maneuver to fine tune their final approach to their targets and LEO is increasingly accessible through smaller space payloads.

The combination would also appear to exploit a loophole in SALT II forbidding the installation of any nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in “orbit around the Earth.”

In October 2021, Financial Times reported that China may have tested such a weapon in August of that year, with the Chinese military launching a rocket that then launched a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) that circled the Earth in LEO before cruising to its target.

 
We still don't have actual photos or videos of this supposed space plane. There's no proof this thing actually exists.
 
We still don't have actual photos or videos of this supposed space plane. There's no proof this thing actually exists.
Maybe not as the exact shape, but that thing surely exists

 

China allegedly tests new space plane in JF-22 Mach 30 wind tunnel​

Recently released footage on Twitter shows a new Chinese space plane mothership design being tested in its Mach 30 JF-22 wind tunnel.

Christopher McFadden
Jul 21, 2023 04:29 AM EST


The Chinese Government has released footage on Twitter that allegedly shows the "world's most powerful" wind tunnel being used to test a scale model of a new Chinese space plane. Other footage also shows a high-speed oblique detonation wave engine, also known as a "shcramjet," used to power the wind tunnel, which can reportedly simulate conditions at speeds up to Mach 30. The clips originate from the state-run China Central Television's (CCTV) Channel 13, the country's largest 24-hour news network. They began to appear on social media over the weekend.

Shcramjet, not scramjet​

A "shcramjet" engine is similar to a scramjet engine, but there is a difference in the way combustion occurs. In a "shcramjet" engine, combustion happens in a thin area that is stabilized over a wedge, blunt body, or other surface using standing oblique shock and/or detonation waves. This is unlike in a scramjet engine, where combustion occurs diffusively. Because the combustion in a "shcramjet" is limited to a smaller area, the combustor length can be much shorter than in a scramjet engine. This allows for more efficient fuel-air mixing and combustion.

Last month, the Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing declared that their latest JF-22 hypervelocity wind tunnel had successfully undergone an "acceptance check" and was now available for general use. Construction on the JF-22 began in 2018, and it measures approximately 548 feet (167 meters) in length, with a test cabin diameter of roughly 13 feet (4 meters).

The design showcased in the video being tested bears a striking resemblance, in its general outline, to air-launched spaceplane and mothership concepts that have been publicly displayed in the past by Chinese aerospace companies and academic institutions.

It features a delta-shaped wing and dart-like structure reminiscent of a design previously shared in wind tunnel test pictures and a video by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) in 2019.

There is no clear evidence that the two are directly connected. However, observing both test articles in the JF-22 footage shows they possess general planforms and configurations that resemble those utilized in numerous two-stage-to-orbit space launch proposals.

Two-stage-to-orbit systems involve a mothership aircraft that transports a spacecraft to a high altitude, followed by the spacecraft launching into space using its rocket motor. Many of these systems feature reusable spaceplanes that can land on runways. Some use advanced air-breathing jet engines like scramjets or "shcramjets."

An interesting development​

The recently unveiled footage of China's JF-22 wind tunnel in operation is intriguing. But, it also highlights the nation's continuously expanding high-speed testing facilities fueling their substantial hypersonic and advanced aerospace goals.


 
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