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China's new hypersonic plane unveiled

Konstantin Sheiko
March 13, 2018

As we speak, the journey from Beijing to New York takes an average of thirteen and a half hours. Chances are, in the foreseeable future we might have to spend just a casual couple of hours on this trip. The team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences claims to have designed a hypersonic jet that could travel at 6,000km/h, five times faster than the speed of sound. 

Chinese researchers said the plane would be able to transport passengers and cargo between the continents of Asia and America in about two-hour time bracket. According to Cui Kai, who headed up the research, published a paper on the new design in Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy journal, in which he said: “It will take only a couple of hours to travel from Beijing to New York at hypersonic speed”.

The team said they had tested a scaled-down model of the jet in a wind tunnel, and that it reached speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 7, or 3,800 to 5,370 miles per hour (8,600km/h) with low drag and high lift. To compare, Concorde’s top speed was 2,179km/h. The design, dubbed the I Plane (named because it resembles a capital ‘I’ when viewed from the front), features two layers of wings to reduce turbulence and drag while creating more lift. 

Compared to the Boeing 737’s ability to carry up to 20 tonnes, or 200 passengers, an I Plane of the same size could carry 5 tonnes or 50 passengers. A researcher familiar with the project said that the I Plane could be used to transport bombs as well, saying it could be “something like a hypersonic heavy bomber”. Incidentally, China also recently developed hypersonic missiles capable of traveling at speeds above 7,000 mph.

Talk of hypersonic travel has been ramping up of late. According to Dr. Kevin Bowcutt, senior technical fellow and chief scientist of hypersonics for Boeing Research and Technology, “it is certainly within the realm of possibility”. “I think we have the technology now where we could actually do it.” Researchers from NASA discovered last year that boron nitride nanotubes could be a material that makes hypersonic air travel more feasible, and could allow NASA planes to cross continental USA mainland in less than an hour.

Boeing has dipped its toe in the water with its X-51A WaveRider, and it is now reportedly working with Lockheed Martin to develop a jet-powered hypersonic aircraft, although both companies have been silent so far on topics like the design details. With Japan looking to reintroduce supersonic speeds to aircraft, China has also joined in working on aircraft capable of achieving hypersonic speeds. 

The I Plane’s development reflects China’s desire to be a leader in the hypersonic arms race. China’s next hypersonic project includes a wind tunnel that can produce speeds of up to Mach 36, making it more capable than the Mach 30 LENX-X in Buffalo, New York. 

Supersonic commercial planes, those that travel faster than 1,236km/h, the speed of sound, are likely to be the precursor to hypersonic jets. Boom Supersonic, for example, plans to produce passenger aircraft that can travel at Mach 2.2, or 2,335km/h, entering service in 2023. These jets could carry 50 passengers, flying from New York to London in three hours and 15 minutes.

But the flight prices won’t be cheap - fares are expected to cost $2,500 one way. However, as the technology improves and the niche market fills in with the new players, the costs will definitely go down. It will still be some time before hypersonic flight fully comes to commercialized aircraft, but the idea of going hypersonic is already being capitalized on. At this point, it comes to who can use it more effectively first.