Giant Rail Gun to Launch Hypersonic Planes into Space

Giant Rail Gun to Launch Hypersonic Planes into Space

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Chinese scientists are reportedly developing a giant electromagnetic rail gun meant to launch hypersonic planes into space. The South China Morning Post reports that the giant 50-tonne space plane will be launched at twice the speed of sound. In the works since 2016, this “Tengyun project” is rumored to be close to a breakthrough.

According to Interesting Engineering, the railgun is an electromagnetic launch track used to accelerate a hypersonic aircraft to Mach 1.6 (almost twice the speed of sound). These enormous space planes will be longer than 39.3 meters and weigh 50 metric tons.

This new technology, if it succeeds, could drastically reduce launch costs, making it appealing to companies like NASA and SpaceX, which have yet to successfully develop an electromagnetic launch at this scale.

The challenges this technology comes to solve are the immense amount of fuel required to rely only on the plane’s own power for lift-off, as well as difficulties in combatting the dangers of low-speed take-off. The Chinese engineers solved these issues by compromising the aerodynamic design and engine layout, which impacted the machine’s high-speed flight efficiency. Nevertheless, the scientists working on the Tengyun project are confident they can solve the current issues.

China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation is expected to test this theory by using the 1.93 km long low-vacuum track high-speed maglev test facility in Datong (originally meant to test low-vacuum tube magnetic levitation train technology) due to its ability to propel heavy objects at up to 1,000 kph. SCMP reports the lab is one of the most “ambitious electromagnetic propulsion facilities on the planet.”

US bodies NASA and The Navy have also previously experimented with electromagnetic space launch systems and hypersonic planes, like NASA’s attempt in the 1990s to construct a 14.9 meter mini-test line, which ended after 9.8 meters due to technical difficulties and a lack of funds.