China readies for second launch of pioneering methane-propelled ZQ-2 rocket

China's LandSpace is getting ready to launch its revolutionary ZQ-2 methane-powered rocket for the second time sometime this year.
Christopher McFadden
ZQ 2 is the world's first methane-propelled carrier rocket.
ZQ 2 is the world's first methane-propelled carrier rocket.


Chinese space tech company LandSpace is gearing up to launch its revolutionary methane-propelled rocket, the Zhuque-2 (ZQ 2), for the second time sometime this year. Scheduled to blast off from the company's launch facility in the Gobi Desert, the mission will deliver a satellite into space. LandSpace, widely considered China's answer to SpaceX, the launch is hoped to cement further the utility of using methane as a reliable next generation of rocket fuel.

In December, the ZQ 2 rocket undertook its maiden flight at the Jiuquan center. The rocket successfully surpassed the Karman Line, the universally accepted boundary between Earth's atmosphere and the edge of space. Unfortunately, it experienced a malfunction during its second stage and could not attain orbit.

It's methane-powered

Powered by gas generator engines, the ZQ-2 can allegedly 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. 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.

Several companies, including SpaceX, are working on rockets that utilize methane-based fuel due to their potential to be a cleaner and safer alternative to current fuel sources such as solid propellants and liquid hydrogen. As of now, there hasn't been a company that has utilized methane for launching a satellite or sending astronauts into orbit. If LandSpace succeeds, it will give the Beijing-based company a reason to boast and support President Xi Jinping's goal of having China eventually rival the US as the leading power in space.

“What it tells us is that China has had an extremely rapid evolution in its technological capabilities,” said Matija Renčelj, a research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna, thanks in part to “the financial and political support that it is giving to its space sector and its space program," Renčelj added.

In 2018, LandSpace's initial launch using a traditional solid fuel was unsuccessful. Subsequently, the company has devoted its efforts to adopting cutting-edge technology, such as methane-based engines.

“It is a historic opportunity for the new entrants in China’s aerospace industry,” said Chang Young-Keun, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Korea Aerospace University, said in an interview, reports Bloomberg. The whole development process was “extremely difficult,” he said.

Methane is abundant

According to Young-Keun, there is an abundant supply of methane on Mars, which could be utilized to fuel future manned missions back to Earth. Compared to kerosene, burning methane produces less soot, making post-mission cleanup easier, as explained by Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the non-profit Aerospace Corp. located in El Segundo, California.,

“Methane is so simple. You can make it in the laboratory, and you can make it in a factory, presumably with renewable electricity,” Renčelj said. “So with methane, we could be moving to a regime where rocket fuels are sustainable.,” he added.