A Chinese commercial company called LandSpace launched its Zhuque-2 rocket late Tuesday and made history as the first company to send a methane-fueled engine into orbit, beating many US vehicles to progress.
LandSpace launched the Zhuque-2 rocket at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday (01:00 UTC Wednesday) from the Jiuquan spaceport, a military-run facility in the Gobi Desert in northwest China. The company called the launch a success in a press release, and publicly available US military information confirmed that the rocket reached the surface at a distance of about 280 kilometers (450 miles).
“The pilot was completed according to schedule, and the launch was a success,” LandSpace said. “The (Zhuque-2) rocket is the world’s first liquid oxygen methane rocket to successfully enter orbit, and is the first commercial and aerospace vehicle to successfully enter orbit using a self-propelled water engine.”
The Zhuque-2 (Vermillion Bird-2) rocket is small compared to other methane-powered rockets under development in the United States. In its current configuration, the 162-meter-tall (49.5-meter) Zhuque-2 rocket can lift payloads of about 3,300 pounds (1.5 metric tons) into a polar Sun-synchronous orbit, which favors many Earth observation satellites.
Images of SpaceX began its large-scale methane-fueled Super Heavy test The booster is Starship launching a vehicle from Texas for the first time in April, but the mission was canceled before it reached space. When operational, the payload capacity of the Starship vehicle will be 100 times that of the Chinese Zhuque-2 rocket.
Relativity Space launched its tiny Terran 1 rocket from Florida in March, but the upper engine malfunctioned just minutes after liftoff, preventing the vehicle from making it to land. Relativity is they abandoned Terran 1’s designs to advance to the largest Terran R rocket. United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, Rocket Lab’s Neuton launch vehicle, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn — all partially or fully methane-fueled — are also in various stages of development.
Methane is all the rage
In the past, large liquid rockets used kerosene, hydrogen, or hydrazine as fuel.
Hydrazine is toxic and is no longer used in large rockets, but most of China’s family of Long March rockets – built and operated by state-owned companies – are still fueled with hydrazine. Liquid hydrogen provides the best fuel efficiency for conventional rockets but it is hard to handle. It must be kept close to 423° Fahrenheit (minus 253° Celsius) and tends to leak due to its high hydrogen content.
Highly refined kerosene, RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1), is the most common liquid fuel for rockets in operation today. Kerosene is stored close to room temperature and can be used in high-speed engines, and its high density allows for smaller fuel tanks.
But engineers have widely accepted methane as the fuel of choice for the new generation of rockets. Liquid methane is a cryogenic fluid, but it has a higher boiling point and higher density than hydrogen. Its temperature is similar to that of liquid gas, which is used as an oxygen in rockets fueled by hydrogen, kerosene, and methane.
Methane offers some advantages for reusable rockets. Kerosene fuel — used to power SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters — deposits a lot of soot in the rocket’s engines, which require cleaning and maintenance between missions. This is one of the reasons SpaceX switched to methane for its next-generation Starship rocket.
There is another opportunity for methane, but it will not be available for many years. Future explorers could use natural resources from Mars to make their own rocket fuel.
The successful launch of the LandSpace rocket late Tuesday followed the first flight of the Zhuque-2 in December. The vernier engine on the Zhuque-2 rocket’s second stage shut down prematurely during a December test flight, leaving the vehicle with the speed needed to enter a stable Earth orbit.
There was no such problem with the second launch of Zhuque-2, which had no operational satellites. LandSpace says it is preparing a third Zhuque-2 rocket for another mission by the end of the year, which could include paying customers.
The two-stage Zhuque-2 rocket is powered by four TQ-12 engines in its first stage, using methane gas and liquid gas to generate about 600,000 pounds of thrust. There is one TQ-12 engine on the top and one lower engine. The TQ-12 engine relies on a natural gas generator, not the ignition complex required to create powerful and efficient methane engines such as SpaceX’s Raptor for the Starship/Super Heavy rocket or Blue Origin’s BE-4 for the Vulcan and New Glenn launch vehicles.