The Chinese government has recently made public a video showcasing what they claim to be the world’s most potent wind tunnel. This footage displays a scale separation test of an air-launched space plane design from a mothership aircraft. Additionally, the video features the high-speed oblique detonation wave engine, also known as a scramjet, which powers the wind tunnel. The tunnel’s capabilities reportedly allow it to replicate conditions at speeds of up to Mach 30.
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These clips were shown on China Central Television’s (CCTV) Channel 13, the country’s most extensive 24-hour television news network, and have since been shared on social media platforms.
The JF-22 hypervelocity wind tunnel, developed by the Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) in Beijing, passed an “acceptance check” last month and is now ready for general use. The project, initiated in 2018, involved constructing the JF-22, which measures approximately 548 feet (167 meters) in length overall, with a “test cabin” of around 13 feet (four meters) in diameter.
The design observed in the video appears to share some broad similarities with previously showcased air-launched spaceplane and mothership concepts from Chinese aerospace companies and academic institutions. The delta-winged, dart-shaped planform seen in the footage bears a resemblance to designs presented in wind tunnel test images and a video released by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) in 2019.
Nevertheless, there are no immediate indications to directly link the two designs. The footage from the JF-22 test shows general planforms and an overall configuration commonly utilized in many two-stage-to-orbit space launch concepts.
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In broad terms, two-stage-to-orbit systems involve a mothership aircraft transporting the spacecraft to a high altitude, from which the spacecraft is launched into space using its own propulsion, typically in the form of a rocket motor. These concepts often involve reusable spaceplanes designed to land on conventional runways. Some are equipped with advanced high-speed air-breathing jet engines, such as scramjets or shcramjets. The primary difference between scramjets and shcramjets lies in the construction of their inlets and combustion chambers. For more historical information about two-stage-to-orbit concepts, dating back to the 1950s, you can refer to this previous War Zone feature.
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Two-to-stage-orbit concepts, in general, offer significant advantages such as enhanced flexibility and unpredictability compared to conventional space launch rockets. The spaceplane launching from a mothership aircraft requires less static infrastructure, allowing operations from various existing and adequately large air bases or airports with reduced preparation time. This expanded launch envelope and wider launch windows enable quicker deployment of payloads to desired orbits, making it particularly valuable during conflicts when swift replacement of space-based capabilities becomes necessary due to destruction, damage, or other disruptions.
However, it is essential to note that two-stage-to-orbit concepts typically have a limited total payload weight capacity compared to traditional space launch rockets. Nevertheless, they can serve additional purposes beyond orbital payload delivery, including long-range intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, strike missions, and on-orbit attacks. Chinese companies have also shown interest in utilizing such concepts for commercial transport and tourism applications.
Jiang Zonglin, head of the JF-22 wind tunnel project, claimed in 2021 that two-stage-to-orbit concepts could potentially slash satellite and spacecraft launch costs by up to 90 percent, as per their estimates.
China, among other countries worldwide, has long been interested in developing these types of space launch capabilities. The Chinese Academy of Science has mentioned the JF-22’s role in supporting the development of future hypersonic aircraft.
Additionally, the JF-22 proves instrumental in testing hypersonic weapon designs. Its predecessor, the JF-12, which was considered the world’s most potent wind tunnel and powered by a pulse detonation engine, was utilized for testing an unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle called the DF-ZF. Over time, this program has evolved into the operational DF-17 hypersonic missile.
Footage from Chinese state media has shown a wedge-shaped test article, similar to the one in the JF-22 footage, which might pertain to an older wind tunnel like the JF-12.
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The JF-12 and now the JF-22 are integral components of a broader Chinese high-speed testing network. U.S. officials, in particular, have repeatedly pointed out that this has given the Chinese military a crucial advantage in developing and deploying various hypersonic systems.
According to Paul Freisthler, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s Chief Scientist for Science and Technology, China has surpassed Russia in terms of both supporting infrastructure and the number of hypersonic systems. He emphasized China’s significant advancements in conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies through dedicated investment, development, testing, and deployment over the past two decades.
In contrast, the U.S. has faced limitations in its hypersonic testing efforts due to comparatively restricted and specialized infrastructure. The U.S. military is actively working to enhance and modernize elements of its hypersonic test ecosystem to accelerate progress in this area.
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The recently released footage of China’s JF-22 wind tunnel in operation is intriguing in itself, but it also highlights the country’s expanding high-speed test infrastructure. This infrastructure plays a critical role in supporting China’s ambitious endeavors in hypersonic and other advanced aerospace technologies.