China’s pioneering methane-fueled rocket fails to reach orbit

China's pioneering methane-fueled rocket fails to reach orbit
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An illustration of the Zhuque-2 rocket.

An illustration of the Zhuque-2 rocket.
Illustration: landing space

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

China’s private aerospace company, Landspace, hoped to lead the way in utilizing methane, the next generation rocket fuel—which is considered 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 capability coveted by space companies.

Beijing-based Landspace launched the doomed Zhuque-2 at 3:30 a.m. ET on December 14, in what was supposed to be the rocket’s first orbital mission. After liftoff, the rocket’s second stage suffered an engine malfunction, leading to 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 lost (not sure why the company thought it was a good idea to launch so many satellites on an untested 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 tried to launch a three-stage Zhuque-1 rocket, which used solid propellant, in 2018. Zhuque-1 also failed to reach orbit, but the company is now determined to switch to liquid methane as propellant.

Had Landspace succeeded in launching the rocket into orbit, the company would have beaten Elon Musk’s SpaceX in achieving this goal. SpaceX also hopes to use liquid methane fuel to power its Next-generation Starship rockets, which are yet to fly. The company’s Falcon 9 and Super Heavy rockets use kerosene as fuel.

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

China is making significant strides in its spaceflight industry, both on the public and private fronts. October, China released the final module for its own space station in low Earth orbit, completing the ambitious project to compete with 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 methane-fuelled rocket into Earth orbit would certainly give China a huge advantage over other space programs. Of course, it all depends on how well the second launch attempt goes.

Plus: China launches 3 astronauts to its fledgling space station

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