Beijing to Dubai in one hour? Introducing the hypersonic suborbital spaceplane

How one Chinese start-up has designs on revolutionising the way we travel

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A Chinese start-up is developing a hypersonic spaceplane that will ferry passengers from one country to another with suborbital flights.

The ambitious project is called Space Transportation and is being developed by Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology.

It will transform the travel industry if successful. For example, it would allow passengers from Beijing to reach Dubai in an hour, instead of the nine hours it takes on a regular aircraft.

An artist's impression of the hypersonic spaceplane arriving in Dubai.

Although the idea is not new – there are a few other companies attempting to achieve the task – this start-up is making notable progress, with ground tests expected to take place in 2023.

Last year, the company managed to secure $62 million in funding for its projects through a Shanghai-level industrial investment fund, the Silk Road Golden Bridge and Tianqi Venture Capital.

“The product of Lingkong Tianxing is a high-speed aircraft. Imagine, in less than two hours, we can fly from the eastern hemisphere to the western hemisphere,” said Zuo Lingye, partner at Jingwei China, one of the investment partners of the start-up.

“This may be the next generation of aircraft that will have a major impact on global passenger transport and logistics.”

Futuristic travel

An animation on the company’s website shows passengers boarding a spaceplane in Beijing spaceport.

The vehicle detaches from a rocket-powered wing once it is high enough – similar to the technique Virgin Galactic uses for its suborbital flights.

Except, this one takes off vertically and can go up to speeds of 10,000 kilometres per hour, as it travels 7,000 kilometres across the edge of space and over to the Middle East in only 60 minutes.

It lands vertically on a spaceport in Dubai, using legs that unfold as it touches down.

Passengers would be able to book their spaceflight tickets though an app and use it as a boarding pass.

The rocket-powered wing is reusable and would return to the point of lift-off after the spaceplane detaches from it.

Timeline

The company is planning to carry out ground tests in 2023 and to stage an un-crewed flight test in 2024. By 2025, a crewed flight test would take place.

It is hoped that the first commercial flight would take place by 2030.

China has been carrying out launch tests of suborbital and orbital vehicles from the Jiuqan Satellite Launch Centre since 2020.

Progress in suborbital travel

So far, only Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have successfully carried out crewed suborbital commercial flights. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has sent tourists to orbit and to the International Space Station.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew towards the edge of space last summer, with company owner Richard Branson on board the first flight.

Experiences on both of the spaceships involves a few minutes of weightlessness before they land back near to where they lifted-off from.

Blue Origin's New Shepard flight takes off vertically and goes higher than SpaceShipTwo, crossing the Karman Line, the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and the beginning of space.

A few years ago, Virgin Galactic had said that it would be able to ferry passengers from one country to another, using spaceports that would be built in different parts of the world.

The company uses its Spaceport America launch pad in New Mexico for its current launches, although authorities had grounded their flights after the first and only suborbital flight in the summer went off-path.

It is expected that operations would resume by the end of this year, with ticket sales now re-opened to the public.

An agreement between Abu Dhabi Airports and Virgin Galactic was signed in 2019 to build a spaceport in Al Ain airport, however, no updates have been provided since.

Last year, the UAE Ministry of Economy and Blue Origin agreed to explore ways to develop a space tourism market in the Emirates, including a spaceport.

Updated: February 21, 2022, 6:34 AM
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