China tests aircraft that flew at 6 times the speed of sound

X-51 The Boeing X-51 WaveRider that was tested by the US Air Force | US Air Force

China has successfully developed and tested a cutting-edge hypersonic aircraft that rides its own shock waves, authorities said on Monday.

The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics in Beijing announced the first flight test of its Starry Sky 2 aircraft, which it calls the nation's first hypersonic experimental waverider vehicle. The test was conducted last week at an unidentified testing field in northwestern China, reports the China Daily.

It said the test was a "huge success".

A waverider is a hypersonic aircraft that has a wedge-shaped fuselage designed to improve its supersonic lift:drag ratio by using the shock waves generated by its own flight as a lifting force.

The hypersonic vehicle was first carried by a solid-propellant rocket and then separated as its own propulsion system took over. During the independent flight, the test craft maintained ultra-fast speeds above Mach 5.5 for more than 400 seconds and reached Mach 6, which is nearly 7,344 km/h, according to a statement from the academy. Mach 6 is six times the speed of sound.

The US tested an experimental waverider from 2010 to 2013 that was designed to reach Mach 6. The US and Russia have been testing waveriders for years, with an aim to make use of such vehicles' potential in military applications.

Waveriders have considerable potential as high-speed missiles, which would be extremely difficult to shoot down with existing gun and missile-based defences, given that their speed is several times the speed of sound. In comparison, an existing weapon like the US Tomahawk cruise missile is slower than the speed of sound.

Tagged as the fastest aircraft ever built, the US HTV-2, which was not a waverider, achieved a record speed of Mach 20, or 24,480 km/h, during its first flight in April 2010.

The fastest manned aircraft in service is the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25, which boasts a maximum speed of 3,470 km/h. A Boeing 747-400ER passenger jet cruises at about 933 km/h.

The research, sponsored by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, aims to demonstrate new aerodynamic technologies. It said the design of Starry Sky 2 took three years.