Chinese rocket tech powers homegrown bobsleighs for Beijing Winter Olympics

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The bobsleigh race at the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics is set to be faster and more fierce, as a new sled developed using Chinese rocket technology will take to the high-speed sporting slopes.

One of the fastest sports, bobsleigh is a team event in which two to four people race down an ice track riding a specially designed sled, with the winning team completing the route in the shortest time. The event has been a part of the Winter Games since its first edition in 1924.

However, China did not set up a national bobsleigh squad until 2016. In October 2019, researchers at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the country's leading rocket maker, were tasked with designing the country's first homegrown racing bobsled.

Noting the critical nature of the equipment in the sport, they had hoped to take advantage of rocket technologies to make the Chinese team more competitive.

But, none of the rocket scientists had ever seen a real sled. They started with only a technical manual and two old models purchased from abroad, which were not allowed to be disassembled.

"At that time, there were only a few players and no racing track in China," said lead researcher Zuo Xiaobiao, recalling how they built the equipment from scratch.

After weeks of study, they found that the rocketry aerodynamics and structural design can be adapted to help the sled's body minimize air resistance.

They chose carbon fiber composite, a lightweight material that has been used in the rocket nose cones, as the sled's surface material.

After manufacturing the first generation of the domestic sled, the research team invited athletes to test it, but an unexpected problem emerged.

"We tried to narrow the area of the cross-section as much as possible, because the more streamlined an objection is, the less drag it encounters," said Zhou Yu, a senior engineer with the research team. "But the athletes felt uncomfortable after sitting in it because they found it difficult to stretch out their legs and control the sled."

The rocket scientists admitted that in the process of integrating aerospace technologies with the architecture of sport facility they focused too much on speed and safety while neglecting the comfort of the human body.

To solve the problem, they invited China's leading automaker FAW Group Corporation to join the team, owing to the company's rich experience in providing car users with what they need.

The efforts have paid off.

The rocket technology-assisted sled delivered a spectacular performance on ice. According to the designers, its speed could exceed 160 km per hour in tests, making it among the fastest in the world.

"We had a very big advantage compared with similar products from other countries. We could quickly upgrade products based on our self-designed technologies and adapt to the needs of athletes," said Cao Lijun, an expert with FAW.

In September last year, the first batch of domestically-designed bobsleighs was delivered to the General Administration of Sport of China. They were painted in red and yellow, representing the colors of the Chinese national flag.

After getting approval from international sporting regulators, they are very likely to be sledded by Chinese athletes at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

"I would be very proud if Chinese athletes can ride the homegrown bobsleighs, speeding down the ice track and obtaining good scores in Beijing," Zhou said. 

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