China is building a wind tunnel that can simulate winds at multiple times the speed of sound in order to amp up its hypersonic aircraft program.
The new facility, expected to be in operation by 2020, is set to simulate flight speeds at 12 kilometers per second. A vessel traveling at such speed from China can reach the U.S. in 14 minutes.
The ground structure is meant to help scientists detect potential flaws and find solutions before actual test flights of new hypersonic vehicles commence.
“It will boost the engineering application of hyper-sonic technology, mostly in military sectors, by duplicating the environment of extreme hyper-sonic flights, so problems can be discovered and solved on the ground,” said Zhao Wei, a senior scientist working on the project, in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
Hyper-sonic speed is defined as traveling at least Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. In March, China conducted seven successful test flights of its hyper-sonic glider WU-14, which travels at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10.
Currently, the title for most powerful wind tunnel stands with the United States. The LENX-X facility in Buffalo, New York, simulates speeds of up to 10 kilometers per second or Mach 30.
“China and the US have started a hyper-sonic race,” said Wu Dafang, professor at the school of aeronautic science and engineering at Beihang University in Beijing, in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
But they’re not the only ones with horses in the race. Russia, India and Australia have also tested early prototypes of the WU-14, which could be used to deliver nuclear-armed missiles.
Wu—who has helped develop hyper-sonic cruise missiles, a near space vehicle and other weapons under wraps for the People’s Liberation Army— says existing wind tunnels in mainland China have already helped solidify the success of its hypersonic weapons.