China’s Pioneering Methane-Fueled Rocket Fails to Reach Orbit

An illustration of the Zhuque-2 rocket.

An illustration of the Zhuque-2 rocket.
Illustration: Landspace

The Zhuque-2 rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on Wednesday, leaving behind an unusual purplish trail—a product of its unique methane fuel. The rocket managed to take flight, but it failed to reach orbit and deliver the 14 satellites that were on board.

China’s private aerospace company Landspace was hoping to lead the way in utilizing methane—the next-generation rocket fuel—which is considered to be cleaner and safer than liquid hydrogen, kerosene, and other propellants currently in use. Liquid methane is also a good choice in terms of rocket reusability, a coveted capability for space companies.

The Beijing-based Landspace launched the doomed Zhuque-2 at 3:30 am ET on December 14, in what was supposed to be the rocket’s first orbital mission. Following liftoff, the rocket’s second stage suffered an engine malfunction, resulting in mission failure, Landspace announced on Wednesday. Outside observers had already speculated that the mission was a failure before the company announced it.

Telemetry data suggests the rocket reached a speed of 11,000 miles per hour (5 kilometers per second), when it needed to reach around 17,500 miles per hour (7.8 kilometers per second) to maintain a stable orbit, according to Everyday Astronaut. The rocket was carrying a commercial payload of 14 satellites, all of them lost (not sure why the company thought it was a good idea to launch so many satellites on an unproven rocket, but whatever).

Despite its failure, the orbital test flight was still lauded as a major milestone for China, and its private space industry as a whole. The Chinese startup had attempted to launch a three-stage Zhuque-1 rocket, which used solid propellant, back in 2018. Zhuque-1 also failed to reach orbit, but the company is now set on switching to liquid methane as propellant instead.

Had Landspace been successful in launching the rocket to orbit, the company would have beaten Elon Musk’s SpaceX in achieving this vaunted goal. SpaceX is also hoping to use liquid methane fuel to power it next generation Starship rockets, which are yet to fly. The company’s Falcon 9 and Super Heavy rockets use the kerosene for fuel.

Even before its first orbital test flight, Landspace was already preparing for the second attempted launch of Zhuque-2, SpaceNews reported. The rocket’s second and third models are already in development, but Landspace is aiming to eventually make the rocket reusable, according to SpaceNews.

China is making significant headway with its spaceflight industry, both on the private and public front. In October, China launched the final module for its own space station in low Earth orbit, completing the ambitious project to rival the International Space Station. China also has some big plans for the Moonsetting up future launches that could compete with NASA’s Artemis program.

Launching the first ever methane-fueled rocket to Earth orbit would certainly give China a major advantage over other space programs. Of course, that all depends on how well the second launch attempt goes.

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