China's New Hypersonic Aircraft Is Based on a Rejected NASA Design

And it can go faster than five times the speed of sound.
Chris Young
A NASA X-47A aircraftDARPA/Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers in China has built and tested a prototype hypersonic flight engine that is allegedly based on a design that was scrapped by NASA over 20 years ago, according to a report from the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The prototype itself might not lead to a production version of hypersonic aircraft. Still, in a paper in the Journal of Propulsion Technology, the team behind the machine said "understanding its work mechanism can provide important guidance to hypersonic plane and engine development." 

NASA's scrapped X-47C program is revived

The original design was proposed by Ming Han Tang, a former chief engineer of NASA's hypersonic program in the late 1990s. Tang's Two-Stage Vehicle (TSV) X-plane design was at the center of the Boeing Manta X-47C program, as per the SCMP report. However, before the program could verify the viability of the design, it was terminated by the U.S. government due to its high costs as well as a series of technical issues.

Unlike the majority of hypersonic aircraft proposals, which feature an engine on the underside, the TSV X-plane design by Tang has two separate engines on each side. At lower speeds, the engines work as normal turbine jet engines. With no moving parts, the configuration then allows the aircraft to quickly switch to high-speed mode to accelerate to more than five times the speed of sound.

Now, Professor Tan Huijun and colleagues at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu, China, have constructed a prototype based on Tang's original specifications. They were able to do this due to the fact that the blueprints for the Boeing Manta X-47C program were declassified in 2011. Huijun and his team tested the prototype in a wind tunnel that allows testing in conditions resembling flight at Mach 4 to Mach 8. The tests revealed that Tang's proposed engine design works in these conditions, meaning they should be able to conduct further tests and build new iterations of their prototype. 

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The race to go hypersonic

The U.S. and China are in the midst of a space and aviation race. According to the SCMP article, a number of high-profile Chinese scientists quit NASA and other government engineering firms in the U.S. in the late 90s due to strained relations between the two countries. This reportedly coincided with the start of China's hypersonic weapons program in the early 2000s.

China's space agency recently announced that it is building a fission reactor for the Moon that will reportedly be 100 times more powerful than one in development by NASA. China's government also announced earlier this year that it will collaborate with Russia on a lunar space station, which will directly rival NASA's lunar Gateway program. In October, China also launched a hypersonic missile with "an advanced space capability" that took U.S. officials by surprise.

In July, meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force granted a hypersonic aircraft startup called Hermeus a $60 million contract to develop a prototype aircraft within three years that could travel at speeds of Mach 5 using only one engine. The race to go hypersonic is in full force.