A few days ago, we mentioned how Chinese scientists are dabbling with the seemingly oddball scope of genetically engineering muscular dogs. Well, on the other end of the technological spectrum, their engineers have painstaking contrived what is China’s largest aircraft – and it is solar-powered. We are talking about Yuanmeng (which translates to ‘dream’), a massive 75-m (or 246 ft) long airship that just completed a 48-hour test flight last week from Xilinhot (in Inner Mongolia), by soaring at an impressive height of 20 km (12.4 miles) above the Earth surface.
The gigantic scope of the Yuanmeng airship obviously shows in its inflated form – which pertains to an enormous volume of 18,000 cubic meters (or 194,000 cubic ft), and a ship height of 22 m (or 72 ft). When translated to payload capacities, the flying behemoth can carry around 6.3 metric tonnes of weight. However, beyond just the size-factor, it is the technological ambit of Yuanmeng that makes it a strategic feat of engineering. To that end, while the airship travels to the ‘edge of space’ with the aid of helium gas, the array of electronic equipment and devices on-board can function for six months at a stretch by just using solar power (from the panels arranged atop the dirigible).
This brings us to the question – what exactly would be the purpose of such a large aircraft hovering around in mid-space? Well, according to the Chinese People’s Daily, the Yuanmeng airship will comprise a range of equipment for communication and observation functions, including on-board systems for ‘data relays, high-definition observation, and spatial imaging’. This collective scope of functionality can also extend to modern military tactics, as speculated by Popular Science –
Operating higher in near space means that the Yuanmeng would have constant line of sight over a hundred thousand square miles—an important requirement for radar and imaging. Increased sensor coverage means increased warning time against stealthy threats such as cruise missiles, giving Chinese forces a greater opportunity to detect and shoot down such threats. It would also be harder for fighters and surface-to-air missiles to attack near space objects.
Of course, other than just military uses, the flight-sustaining capacity of such airships can be potentially taken advantage of – for carrying high payloads of cargo from one continent to another, in a similar manner to cargo marine ships. The technological ambit can also be extended to luxury passengers airships, thus harking back to early 20th century, albeit with far better safety features. And lastly, if we stretch our imagination a bit, such gargantuan solar-powered dirigibles can further be utilized for even exploration of other planets – as was the interesting notion put forth by NASA (last year) for inspecting the surface of Venus from overhead station-blimps.