World's first attempt to reach orbit with methane-fueled rocket fails
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.
👀Leaked footage of the first launch of LANDSPACE's Zhuque-2 shows liftoff at ~08:30:25UTC on DEC.14. At the time of anomaly at ~T+300s, second stage main engine has been cut off and payload fairing has been jettisoned. https://t.co/fAyuoOkS1A pic.twitter.com/TBHEA5W0ji— China 'N Asia Spaceflight 🚀🛰️🙏 (@CNSpaceflight) December 14, 2022
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.
👀 A great shot of the first launch of LANDSPACE'S ZHUQUE-2. The startup has disclosed the cause of failure: anomaly of the 2nd stage vernier engines, while the first and second stage main engines all worked as expected. LANDSPACE still did a great job despite the failure.👏 #ZQ2 https://t.co/Ul547WlmXp pic.twitter.com/1cKVsFiqpA— China 'N Asia Spaceflight 🚀🛰️🙏 (@CNSpaceflight) December 15, 2022
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.
However, it is unclear if the failure will affect the new launch attempt.
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