China’s Largest Ever Airship Treads Near Space
Three days ago, unbeknownst to most of the world, China initiated a test flight lasting 24 hours. The object gaining flight was the 75 meters long, 22 meters high “Yuanmeng”, an airship taking up the volume of 18,000 cubic meters. It is solar powered, and the test was successful when the airship edged toward near space, a region of the earth’s atmosphere that exists between 20km and 100km in altitude.
The Yuanmeng is capable of carrying a payload of up to 7 tons that includes sensors, cameras, and other equipment, all of which will be solar powered thanks to sun-soaking solar panels installed on the top of the airship. The same solar energy will be used to power its rotors for forward flight, reports Chinese publication People’s Daily Online.
As a multi-purpose airship, the Yuanmeng can be used to detect stealth aircraft at high altitudes, warships, cruise missiles and even missile launchers that are installed hundreds of miles away.
The Yuanmeng also holds considerable advantages over the JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System), an American airship that is currently residing near Washington D.C. and can be used for similar missions like the Yuanmeng. For starters, the JLENS is tethered to the ground while the Yuanmeng could freely take a stroll in the skies, powered by the sun.
The Yuanmeng could, in fact, climb so high that it can also be used as a communications relay to Chinese drones and satellites while relying on ground communications if satellite communications go offline.
Hovering along near Space
Near space, a region of the earth’s atmosphere between 20km to 100km poses a tricky problem, not only for the height and the air density in the zone but due to thermal expansion. Yu Quan, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering points out the problem:
“The biggest challenge for the near-space airship is the big temperature difference in the day and night.”
Most traditional aircraft will not be found venturing into near space too often, but the American X51A, and the HTV-2 aircraft are notable exceptions due to their hypersonic flight capabilities.
Operating in near space comes with its advantages, despite the challenges. The Yuanmeng would have an uninterrupted line of sight that would cover a hundred thousand air miles at such an altitude. An untethered position up there, in near space, could prove invaluable for radar systems.
The Yuanmeng can be deployed for a number of reasons including research, weather forecast, data relays as well as its military applications.
Featured image from Shutterstock, Yuanmeng concept from caanews and JLENS from Wikimedia.