China has launched a new supersonic aircraft based on NASA technology that was “abandoned” 54 years ago.

After more than five decades of NASA abandonment, China has resurrected this technology…

Illustrative images.

Beijing has invested heavily in hypersonic research and hopes to have a fleet of supersonic aircraft capable of transporting passengers anywhere on the planet in an hour or two hours by 2035, according to the Chinese government’s plan.

Professor Wei Xiaohui and colleagues at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics have recently published one of them.

Chinese researchers claim to have resurrected NASA’s wheelless landing technology, which was invented more than 60 years ago (and then abandoned 54 years ago), and that the technology is now being developed. According to SCMP, the technology is being used on the country’s newest experimental supersonic aircraft.

Most wing-equipped aircraft land on a set of wheels that absorb impact and aid in braking and steering. However, with the help of artificial intelligence, a team at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics claims to have reused sliding landing gears for a new experimental supersonic plane based on NASA’s invention (AI).

China’s experimental supersonic aircraft uses sliding landing gears. Image: Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics

After travelling at 5 times the speed of sound or faster, their prototype supersonic plane would hit a pair of slides that opened below it, causing the plane to slow down while keeping its nose pointed straight ahead.

Wei Xiaohui, a professor at the university’s key laboratory of basic science for national defence, developed the sliding landing system based on existing technology.

Professor Wei and his colleagues wrote in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Academy of Sciences that this experimental supersonic aircraft will be able to land at almost any airport “as long as it has a concrete runway.” Last week, I visited Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

They also claim that the landing gears take up less space, saving nearly 60%.

NASA used the wheelless landing technology at first, but then ‘abandoned’ it because it was too dangerous.

The supersonic aircraft has flown for nearly ten years in NASA’s joint X-15 supersonic research programme with the North American Air Force, Navy, and Aviation, setting speed and altitude records. Unofficial world speeds of 7,274 km/h (Mach 6.7) and 108 km [on 3 October 1967 with US Air Force pilot Pete Knight in the cockpit; and the same altitude of 108 km on August 22, 1963 with NASA Pilot Joseph Walker in the cockpit] were achieved.

However, the X-15 was forever associated with NASA and the United States due to an incident. The X-15 missile carrier also made a manned supersonic flight at Mach 6 in 1967, landing on a pair of slides. Because slides cannot be steered or braked, the plane must land on the large flat surface of the dry lake bottom, where it can go in any direction after touching down. A skid broke and flipped the plane during an emergency landing, seriously injuring one of the pilots.

In 1968, Project X-15 came to an end, and slide technology was phased out of NASA’s hypersonic programme.

Langley’s famous aeronautical researcher John V. Becker (born 1913) identified 25 specific technological achievements from the US X-15 supersonic research programme, contributing to the development of these programmes. Becker was an early supporter of the X-15 programme, contributing important concepts and leading the way in speed aerodynamics programmes to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) and NASA. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft programmes, as well as the Space Shuttle programme, were all launched in the 1960s.

As a result of these accomplishments, China has’resurrected’ this technology with the help of artificial intelligence 54 years later.

Professor Wei’s team has developed new gears that appear to be more powerful in China. They claim that even if the test supersonic plane landed at more than 200 km/h but deviated 10 metres, the slides could still return it to the runway’s centre in a matter of seconds.

Image of supersonic aircraft I (belonging to China’s supersonic project) has a unique two-wing configuration to increase payload and reduce drag. 
Photo: China Science Press

Slides, unlike wheels, cannot effectively change the direction of a moving plane by turning, a problem the team claims to have solved by including a brake pad on each slide.

If the plane leans too far to the right, the pad attached to the left slide will descend and strike the runway, causing friction to change the plane’s balance and bring it back on track.

That is the hypothesis. In fact, there are many unpredictably unpredictable factors in flight, including weather, which is managed by artificial intelligence. Professor Wei’s team claims to have used this technology to improve the slide control software’s accuracy.

They claim to be inspired by bird behaviour, such as how a flock communicates with one another to find the best food.

By exchanging information based on data collected by the sensors, machine learning algorithms determine the best landing strategies so that the skid landing gear control system can keep the plane straight in any condition.

Chinese scientists and engineers claim to have solved a number of major problems in supersonic flight, including overheating, air injection, and flight control technology, after more than two decades of research.

However, issues such as landings and noise can obstruct the use of hypersonic technology for both military and civilian purposes, and artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to solve some of these issues. According to the scientists involved in the programme, this is a problem.

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