At a time when the world powers are racing to develop powerful hypersonic weapons, China has apparently taken a big stride forward in making its own. The country is currently said to be building the world's fastest wind tunnel to test hypersonic flight that can reach a remarkable speed of 12 kilometres per second.

If successful, a hypersonic vehicle travelling at this speed from China is expected to strike targets in the west coast of the United States within 14 minutes. Given the high demand of China's hypersonic weapon development programme, researchers, working on the project, aim to have the tunnel functional by 2020.

Hypersonic weapon
This is an artist's rendering illustrates what a hypersonic missile could look like as it travels along the edge of Earth's atmosphere.Raytheon

Hypersonic aircraft are those that can fly at speeds of Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound, or above. Many other countries, including the US, Russia, India and Australia, have been working on such high-speed aircraft that can be used to deliver nuclear-capable missiles.

China's upcoming facility will be "one of the most powerful and advanced ground test facilities for hypersonic vehicles in the world", Wu Dafang, a professor at the school of aeronautic science and engineering at Beihang University in Beijing, told South China Morning Post.

The tunnel is said to be capable of accommodating large aircraft models with a wingspan of nearly three metres. Inside the facility, researchers will blow up several tubes containing a mixture of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen to generate airflow at extremely high speeds.

While these powerful explosions will be enough to discharge one gigawatt of power in an instant, the shock waves inside the test chamber will increase the temperature over the vehicle's body to 7,727 degrees Celsius, which is almost 50 percent hotter than the Sun's surface.

X-51A Waverider
Artist's imagination of the X-51A Waverider demonstrating a hypersonic flight.U.S. Air Force

America's LENX-X facility in Buffalo, New York State is currently the world's most powerful wind tunnel operating at speeds of up to 10 kilometres per second, which is 30 times the speed of sound. However, it will likely lose its numero uno position once the new Chinese wind tunnel comes into play.

In March, China reportedly tested its hypersonic glider WU-14, also known as the DF-ZF, seven times. The tests were conducted at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

In July, the US and Australia conducted a series of hypersonic test flights at the Woomera test range in South Australia. The tests were part of the HIFiRE (Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation) programme, which was aimed at exploring the fundamental technologies needed to achieve practical hypersonic flight.

In 2011, the US military also tested a Mach 20 unmanned aircraft named HTV-2. However, the hypersonic flight could last only for a few minutes before the vehicle plunged into the Pacific Ocean.