World's first attempt to reach orbit with methane-fueled rocket fails

The mission was also China's first liftoff of a commercially developed liquid propellant rocket.
Deena Theresa
A Zhuque-2 rocket.
A Zhuque-2 rocket.


Chinese launch company LandSpace was touted to be akin to Elon Musk's SpaceX. They were preparing a satellite launch that could beat Musk's company with a methane-fueled rocket, reported Bloomberg.

Unfortunately, on Wednesday, the world's first methane-fueled expendable rocket to be launched toward orbit failed to reach its goal. Hopes were high as the mission was also China's first liftoff of a commercially developed liquid propellant rocket.

Trouble in the second stage

According to SpaceNews, the Zhuque-2 methane-liquid oxygen rocket had lifted off from newly constructed facilities at the national Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at around 3.30 am EST on December 14.

All seemed fine for a while, with footage on Chinese social media revealing the rocket lifting off into the sky, trailed by the white exhaust. However, leaked footage suggests that the rocket's second stage failed, while the first and second stage main engines all worked as expected.

Years ago, the Beijing-based company's Zhuque-1 rocket did not reach orbit due to third-stage failure.

China's space agency is yet to issue an official confirmation. The company has issued a statement on its Weibo account.

Zhuque-2 was carrying satellites for commercial companies

The vernier thrusters were to burn, which would then carry the stage and payloads into orbit. As per the data, it might not have occurred as expected.

Zhuque-2 was not alone - it carried several satellites for commercial companies to be deployed in a sun-synchronous orbit.

Powered by gas generator engines, Zhuque-2 can deliver a 13,227-pound (6,000-kilogram) payload to a 124-mile (200-kilometer) low Earth orbit or 8,818 pounds (4,000 kilograms) to 248 miles (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit, LandSpace said.

The rocket has a diameter of 11 feet (3.35 meters), a total length of 162.6 feet (49.5 meters), a take-off mass of 481,960 pounds (219 tons), and produces 592,160 pounds (268 tons) of thrust.

The need for methane-powered rockets

Though rocket launches contribute a smaller fraction of all carbon emissions on Earth, the quest to find sustainable or green rocket fuel is imperative and already underway.

NASA has been using liquid hydrogen for decades because of its efficiency. However, methane has often been described as the space fuel of the future. It produces less carbon and can be stored at a higher temperature. It also has a lower cost. However, making methane-fueled rockets are often riddled with engineering challenges.

Second flight model could be on its way

In November, LandSpace announced a second flight model of the Zhuque-2, a reusable rocket.

The company had tested a "restartable" version of the 80-ton-thrust TQ-12 engine, which powers the Zhuque-2 first stage. SpaceNews reported that the firm was also working on an improved second-stage engine that will not use vernier engines.