Innovation: near-space blimp, called 'Yuanmeng' could serve a range of functions including data relay


The blimp, called 'Yuanmeng', is billed by the Chinese media as the world's first airship to be built equipped with sustainable energy panels and whose flight can be controlled remotely, according to a report by People's Daily Online.
The ship, which will be able to carry out data relay, communication, high-def observation and spatial imaging functions, flew for 22 hours at a peak of 65,000ft during its first test flight in mid-October before returning to earth.

Ready for take off: The 60,000 cubic feet juggernaut had its first successful test flight in mid-October
Ready for take off: The 60,000 cubic feet juggernaut had its first successful test flight in mid-October
The project to design and launch the 60,000 cubic feet behemoth - the same volume as ten professional swimming pools - was jointly developed by Nanjiang Space and Beijing University of Astronautics and Aeronautics (BeiHang).
The bright silver craft, which was lifted into the skies using helium, runs on the solar energy it generates through its panels during orbit and can carry up to around 660 lbs of weight on board. 
'Near-space' is a region of the Earth's atmosphere between 65,000 ft and 328,000 ft, and is too high for traditional aircraft to penetrate safely.
'The biggest challenge for the near-space airship is the big temperature difference in the day and night,' said Yu Quan, an academic from the Chinese Academy of Engineering - an issue that the new craft is trying to solve.

Uncharted territory: Tapping into the near-space region of the atmosphere interests China and the US greatly
Uncharted territory: Tapping into the near-space region of the atmosphere interests China and the US greatly

Years of work: Scientists and researchers from BeiHang University helped to make the dream a reality 
Years of work: Scientists and researchers from BeiHang University helped to make the dream a reality 

Liu Dongxu, associate manager of Nanjiang Space, said: 'Near space offers a bridge between aviation and space exploration.'
'We had little previous experience to draw upon in terms of the environment we are dealing with. It has very specific requirements for the material and the overall performance of the aircraft.'
Finding precisely the right material to allow the craft to reach near-space has been a challenge for scientists over recent years, but it appears that the problem is nearing a solution.
Interestingly, given China's recent history of purely designing space technologies for military uses, it has been announced that the new craft will be used for civilian purposes as well.
China has made no secret of its desire to innovate in the field of space exploration, crystallised in the promise made by President Xi Jinping to pursue to 'space dream of the Chinese nation' in 2013. 

Masterplan: Liu Dongxu of joint designers Nanjiang Space said called the ship 'a bridge to space exploration'
Masterplan: Liu Dongxu of joint designers Nanjiang Space said called the ship 'a bridge to space exploration'

Eco-friendly: The ship is entirely powered by its solar panels, here being affixed to it by the ship's constructors
Eco-friendly: The ship is entirely powered by its solar panels, here being affixed to it by the ship's constructors

Expert scientists have previously estimated that China spends over $1 billion dollars (roughly $6 billion yuan) on its space programme every year. 
The first portion of China's long awaited space station, Tiangong 2, could be launched as early as next year, as well plans for three more blimp test flights to be sent into near space during 2016.
The purported success of the appropriately-named 'Yuanmeng' - which translates as 'to fulfill a dream' in English - may come as a surprise to NASA, which launched a contest to design and build a similar craft at the end of 2014. 
Entries for the agency's '20-20-20 Airship contest' were meant to be submitted by January this year, but no results or updates from the contest's organisers have so far been announced.  



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