China’s Modern Zeppelin Is a Solar-Powered Giant of the Skies That Travels Near Space

A rendering of the Yuanmeng 1 photo
Seen as a tremendous engineering discovery of the beginning of the 19th century, the principal feature of Zeppelin’s design was a fabric-covered rigid metal framework made up of traverse rings and longitudinal girders containing some individual gasbags. Aside from the fact that it’s a rigid airship, however, China’s new aircraft is not that similar.
We haven’t been watching the news that much lately, but we’re pretty sure there hasn’t been much talk about Yuanmeng’s launch recently. It so happens that on October 13, China started a 24-hour test flight of its largest airship in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia. We’re talking about a massive, 18,000 cubic meter (635,664 cubic foot) craft that is 75 meters (246 feet) long and 22 meters (72 feet) tall, and that flies high up in the sky.

It flew to 20,000 meters (65,616 feet) to test its control system and near-space flight performance, but it was designed to go even higher than that. Just to set things clear, this area of the sky is the atmosphere between 20 to 100 km (12 to 62 miles) altitude, so the differences between space conditions and those we get on Earth are not that big up there.

Once it got there, it’s used the solar panels installed on its top to power the rotors. This is not just a sustainable power source, but it also allows for extra load on board and a total flight endurance of six months. According to Popular Science, the Yuanmeng’s 6- to 7- ton payload of data relays, datalinks, cameras and other sensors would also be powered by the sun.

In terms of technological advantages, China’s new rigid airship has a constant line of sight over a 100,000 square miles which is an essential requirement for radar and imaging, apparently. Not only will they get a better warning time against stealthy threats such as cruise missiles but it also keeps the craft safe from fighters and surface-to-air missile attacks, since it’s located in the near-space zone.

There still is a significant setback, which is the fact that the ship is flying very close to the outer space. According to Yu Quan, an academician from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the biggest challenge for the near-space airship is the big temperature difference between day and night.
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