A Chinese research team developed a prototype hypersonic engine using a design that NASA scientists had designed but then abandoned in the early 2000s, the South China Morning Post reported last week.
Professor Tan Huijun and researchers at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China’s Jiangsu province have reportedly developed an engine based on a design proposed by Ming Han Tang — a Chinese American who was the chief engineer of NASA’s hypersonic program in the late 1990s.
The abandoned NASA engine concept was known as the Two-Stage Vehicle (TSV) X-plane. The U.S. government ultimately abandoned Tang’s engine design in the early 2000s over cost concerns and difficulties with the design. The Chinese team reportedly learned of Tang’s design after the design blueprints were declassified in 2011.
The TSV design is unique from other hypersonic engine concepts. Most hypersonic engine designs place the engine on a vehicle’s belly, but Tang’s design instead called for a pair of side-mounted engines to propel a hypersonic vehicle forward.
“Understanding its work mechanism can provide important guidance to hypersonic plane and engine development,” the team of Chinese researchers said of the engine design in a recent publication of the Chinese peer-reviewed Journal of Propulsion Technology.
According to the South China Morning Post, the engine design carries an advantage in that it can operate as a normal turbine jet engine at lower speeds and then switch to a hypersonic high-speed mode.
The Chinese research team has reportedly already tested a prototype in a wind tunnel, and the design was able to simulate flight conditions shifting from Mach 4 (about 3,069 miles per hour) to Mach 8 (6,138 miles per hour) for several seconds. The Chinese team reportedly found the engines could start under some of the most challenging flight conditions, as Tang predicted in his original design.
Tang was born in 1939 and was the son of Gen. Zi Chang Tang of the Chinese Nationalist Army, who fled to Taiwan after the communist revolution. Tang’s family came to the United States in 1952. Tang began his NASA career in June 1966 at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. He worked on the YF-12 (the interceptor version of the SR-71 Blackbird) and U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, before leading NASA’s hypersonic program in the late 1990s. Tang passed away in 2018.
According to the South China Morning Post, China’s hypersonic weapons programs began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Chinese-American researchers began to leave the U.S. for China over concerns about mistrust.
In August, China successfully tested a hypersonic vehicle that circled the globe. In October, days after details about China’s hypersonic test became public, the U.S. had to scrub one of its own hypersonic missile tests over a booster system failure. In November, Vice Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force Gen. David Thompson said “We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs” and the U.S. has “a lot of catching up to do.”