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
A photo shows a segment of the JF-22 hypersonic wind tunnel.

Screenshot from CCTV News app 

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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