China beats Musk: first methane-oxygen space rocket launched

Elizabeth Smith

China has successfully launched a new liquid-methane powered carrier rocket into space.

It is the first in the world. It thus beats US rivals such as the Starship launcher, developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Successful launch for China of the world’s first rocket powered by liquid methane

Yesterday, Chinese startup Landscape successfully launched the first rocket powered by an engine fuelled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane. The Chinese company thus beat US rivals in sending what could become the next generation of launch vehicles into space. The Zhuque-2 carrier rocket lifted off at 9am Beijing time and completed its flight mission according to procedure.

Wednesday’s launch put China ahead of US rivals, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, in the race to launch CNG-powered spacecraft. Which is considered less polluting, safer, cheaper and a suitable propellant in a reusable rocket.

Successful launch for China’s liquid methane rocket

The launch of the Zhuque-2 rocket took place at 9am (Beijing time), from the Jiuquan launch pad in the Gobi Desert. It succeeded in putting the payload it was carrying into orbit. Unlike last December when the previous mission failed, resulting in the loss of 14 satellites.

Developed by Chinese space rocket start-up LandSpace, the Zhuque-2 is the first rocket in the world to be fuelled by liquid oxygen-methane fuel and to have successfully entered its intended orbit.

Yesterday’s launch marks a milestone in the application of new low-cost liquid propellants for China’s carrier rockets. LandSpace says its test flight lays the foundation for a reusable rocket.

Chinese companies’ race for liquid propellant

The start-up also became the second private Chinese company to launch a liquid-propellant rocket. In April, Beijing-based Tianbing Technology successfully launched a kerosene-oxygen rocket, taking another step towards the development of rockets that can be recharged and reused, Reuters recalls.

Landscape is now in a position to secure contracts for the Zhuque-2, but faces a field of competition. Other Chinese companies, including iSpace, Galactic Energy and Deep Blue Aerospace, are working on their own reusable liquid-propellant rockets.

How Elon Musk’s raptor engine works

When operational, the payload capacity of SpaceX’s reusable Starship vehicle will be 100 times that of the Chinese Zhuque-2 rocket.

For its mega rocket, SpaceX has been researching and developing the Raptor engine for almost a decade, going through a series of iterations. Inside it is like other engines, which burn chemical fuel to produce thrust.

One of the main innovations of the Raptor engine compared to its predecessor Merlin is the use of methane. Most previous rocket engines relied on the use of fuels such as paraffin instead of methane. But the main advantage of using methane is that it has higher performance than other fuels, which means the rocket can be smaller.

Powered by methane

As we said, SpaceX is not the only company switching to methane. United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, Rocket Lab’s Neuton launch vehicle and Blue Origin’s New Glenn, all partially or fully powered by methane, are also in various stages of development, Ars Technica recalls.

On the other side of the Atlantic, ArianeGroup is also developing a very low-cost reusable rocket engine, Prometheus. Which uses liquid oxygen and methane propellants.

And in May 2022, Avio, the leading Italian space propulsion company that makes the Vega launcher, tested the ‘green’ M10 engine. The latter is powered by oxygen and liquid methane and is intended for Avio’s future Vega E rocket. The thruster, developed by Avio with a thrust class of 10 tonnes, is the first of its kind to be successfully tested in Europe.

Read also: From spaceships to habitation: NASA’s groundbreaking technologies for sending people to Mars

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