Chinese startup beats SpaceX with successful launch of methane-powered rocket

Methane is a relatively cleaner source of fuel and has a post-recovery cleaning workload prior to reuse.
Ameya Paleja
The methane powered ZQ-2 blasting off from Gobi Desert
The methane powered ZQ-2 blasting off from Gobi Desert

China Daily 

LandSpace Technology Corp, a China-based startup, has handsomely beaten Elon Musk's SpaceX by successfully launching a methane-powered rocket. This achievement puts China at the forefront of space technology after two US-based companies, including SpaceX, with similar technologies failed in their attempts earlier this year, South China Morning Post reported.

LandSpace's Zhuque-2 rocket blasted from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert at 9 am on Wednesday morning to deliver a test payload in the sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), the first for a methane-powered rocket.

Before this, LandSpace attempted a launch in December last year, but the rocket's second stage experienced a malfunction and could not reach its intended orbit, Interesting Engineering previously reported.

The methane-powered rocket

The Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2) is a two-stage liquid-propellant carrier rocket that stands 162 feet (49.5 m) tall and has a diameter of nearly 11 feet (3.35 m). The two stages use independently developed engines.

The first stage uses four Tianque-12 [TQ-12] liquid oxygen methane engines that can deliver a thrust of 268 tonnes, while the second stage uses one TQ-12 and one Tianque-11 [TQ-11] engine.

Although methane's density is 20 percent lesser than kerosene, it offers a higher theoretical specific impulse - a measure of the engine's efficiency in producing thrust.

Moreover, using liquid kerosene creates soot inside the engine, which requires thorough cleaning before reuse. Methane as a fuel is highly volatile and burns cleaner, reducing the post-recovery workload and increasing the rocket engine's life.

Since methane and oxygen have similar boiling points, they can be placed against the same bulkhead, unlike hydrogen and oxygen, which require separate cabins. The designers of the rocket have been able to leverage this to reduce the rocket's weight while increasing its payload capacity.

China beats US

The successful launch of ZQ-2, also known as Rosefinch 2, also saw the placement of a four-tonne satellite in SSO. For low-earth orbits, this can be further increased to six tonnes.

The SCMP report added that LandSpace plans to replace the TQ-11 engine with its TQ-15A engine, which can generate 80 tonnes of variable thrust and an improvement of the TQ-12 engine are also in the pipeline. These upgrades will aid in further increasing the ZQ-2's payload capacity and further reducing the launch costs, making it a direct competitor to SpaceX.

Interestingly, SpaceX and another US company, Relativity Space, had unveiled its methane-powered rocket but failed to reach orbit during their maiden launches. SpaceX has now made "over a thousand" changes to Starship before its second launch attempt, but as in rocket science, there is no guarantee that they will make up for a successful mission.

That this achievement came from a Chinese startup and not the government-funded space agency signifies the major leaps China's space ecosystem has made in recent years, much like other technology areas such as quantum computing and hypersonic flight.