Examining China's hypersonic transport plans

Examining China's hypersonic transport plans

BEIJING:Chinese researchers have presented a new design concept for a hypersonic aircraft, which they say is a big step towards one day flying from Beijing to New York in just a few hours.

Which would no doubt be a speedier and perhaps more convenient option than the current 14 hours.

Research into hypersonic flight itself is nothing new, but it usually focuses on military applications where there is more money for research and less pressure to break even.

So will flights five times the speed of sound ever make commercial sense, and carry passengers in two hours across the Pacific?

When it comes to measuring aircraft going really fast the benchmark used is the speed of sound or Mach 1, around 1,235km/h (767mph).

Subsonic - anything below the speed of sound; such as current passenger airliners

Supersonic - faster than Mach 1 and up to Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound); such as Concorde, which flew between Europe and the US from 1976 until its retirement in 2003

Hypersonic - anything faster than Mach 5; currently just small experimental vehicles

Hypersonic is what the Chinese research is focussing on, with a team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences looking at one of the two big challenges; the aerodynamics, and the engine, which is much harder to solve.

In terms of design, hypersonic flight requires something that can minimise drag, that is the resistance to motion from the air; the faster the aircraft, the more drag becomes an issue.

"It goes approximately as velocity squared: if you double velocity, you quadruple the drag," explains professor Nicholas Hutchins of the University of Melbourne.

What's new about the design proposed and tested in China is a second layer of wings attached above the usual wings, in order to reduce drag; it's a little similar to a biplane.

At the moment the developers have only tested a scaled down model in a wind tunnel. BBC/APP