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China building hypersonic railgun that can hurl crewed spacecraft into orbit

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In the escalating dynamics of hypersonic technology and satellite deployment, China is reportedly advancing in the construction of a colossal railgun intended for launching its Tengyun spaceplane, as revealed by the South China Morning Post (SCMP). This move underscores a growing global competition, especially with the United States, in the strategic domain of rapid satellite deployment.
China plans to employ the electromagnetic railgun to catapult spacecraft equivalent in size to a Boeing 737, with a mass of 50 tonnes, directly into space. China’s ambitious project involves the utilization of a massive electromagnetic track designed to accelerate a hypersonic vehicle to Mach 1.6, enabling the craft to separate, ignite its engine, and ascend into near space at velocities seven times faster than sound. The Tengyun spaceplane, developed by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), aims to transport crew and cargo into orbit while also having the capability to deploy satellites and possibly engage in other operations such as satellite docking or surveillance.
The concept is straightforward: an electromagnetic launch track designed to propel a spaceplane to speeds ranging from Mach 1.6 to Mach 5, before the craft engages its onboard rockets to achieve orbital speed. This innovative approach requires a vehicle that can withstand the rigors of railgun acceleration while maintaining safety for human occupants, diverging from NASA’s prior studies focusing on uncrewed payloads.
The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s Flight Vehicle Technology Research Institute has constructed a 2-kilometer test rail in Datong, Shanxi Province, mirroring the dimensions of Nevada’s Hyperloop test track. This track, encapsulated within a vacuum tube, currently achieves speeds of 620 mph and is projected to reach velocities five times greater in future developments.
On the other side of the globe, the US is making its own strides in hypersonic technology. Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic vehicle, according to The Warzone, completed its inaugural powered flight, reaching speeds close to Mach 5, and is expected to eventually hit Mach 6. This development is part of Stratolaunch’s pivot towards hypersonic testing after initially focusing on space launches.
These advancements come at a time when the strategic importance of satellite constellations has been highlighted by recent global conflicts, notably the Ukraine war. Both nations are evidently investing in technologies that enable the swift deployment of satellites, essential for communication, surveillance, and reconnaissance in wartime scenarios.
Sam Bresnick, in Breaking Defense, suggests that China may already be ahead in the domain of tactically responsive space launch (TRSL) capabilities, essential for the rapid replenishment of satellite constellations during conflicts. He contrasts this with the US focus, which has led to the development of larger but less rapidly deployable liquid-fuel rockets.
Despite the advancements, China is still trailing in the realm of reusable rocket technology, a sector where US firms like SpaceX have significantly reduced costs and increased launch efficiency. Nonetheless, China’s CASIC plans to introduce reusable rockets by 2025 and 2026, marking a crucial step in closing the technological gap.
The competition between the US and China in the field of hypersonic technology and space launch capabilities underscores the growing significance of space and satellite systems in contemporary military and strategic operations. The developments in these technologies may well dictate future capacities for global surveillance, communication, and defense.

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