This Wednesday, December 14, may be a seminal date in the history of Chinese space exploration, but the announced grand encounter will ultimately not take place. On the launch pad of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC), the Zhuque-2 rocket from the private company Landspace took off with the hope of an entire country.
If the mission was a simple orbital launch that SpaceX performs every 48 hours, the interest of this mission lies in the rocket engines. The Zhuque-2 is no ordinary craft. The rocket uses methane to lift off. This item had never been used before.
China opens the ball
Under the watchful eye of SpaceX and Blue Origin, which are spending billions to develop this technology, the company Landscape, heavily supported by the Chinese state, has succeeded in developing a methane rocket. If this December 14th was to mark the end of an era, all did not go as planned.
The rocket took off successfully but never reached orbit. When separating the first and second stages, the side engines Vernier have encountered a problem. Without these “navigational” thrusters, the rocket ended up changing course, making orbit impossible.
LANDSPACE has now got a new logo and their new website with a blue theme is online: https://t.co/sARvdqHNWB
Here I have collected the cool sketches of ZhuQue-2 rocket, powered by 4 TianQue-12 methalox engines in the first stage and 1 in the second stage, so that you get the main specifications of the new rocket pic.twitter.com/vMesCN2nLD
— China ‘N Asia Spaceflight 🚀🛰️🙏 (@CNSpaceflight) 2 July 2022
A failure in the last moments for Landscape, which is trying to optimize this morning. The main engines responsible for propulsion worked perfectly. Methane, so difficult to control in normal times, has been masterfully managed by the company’s engineers.
“New generation” rockets
Today, the vast majority of private rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, use fuel that mixes liquid oxygen with specially refined petroleum for the space industry (RP-1). This joint makes it possible to have a fairly high IPS (specific impulse).
This data is used to measure the performance of a rocket engine. For the SpaceX Falcon 9, the ISP is about 340 s. In comparison, the European Ariane 5 rocket, which uses liquid hydrogen instead of kerosene, has an ISP of 431 s.
During its first flight on Wednesday, Zhuque-2 achieved an ISP of 283 s. With extensive development over several years, this method is likely to outperform kerosene-oxygen mixtures and could well compete with hydrogen rockets. In addition to this power increase, methane has the advantage of being much cheaper than RP-1 kerosene.
Methane: The X factor towards profitability?
In an industry where recycling is paramount, methane has the advantage of being “clean” for engines. It leaves little waste, which makes maintenance work easier. If its name is often linked to a polluting gas, methane rockets will have an environmental impact comparable to other rockets.
Blue Origin has been working for years on BE-4 engines that would run on methane. SpaceX, for its part, aims to make “new generation” engines with Raptors 2, which will equip the Starship. If their development has hurt the entire company’s finances, the thrusters seem ready, and SpaceX can still compete for the title of the first company to enter orbit with methane engines.
In addition to these two American companies, Rocket Lab and ULA are working on a methane rocket. These two projects are currently a little further behind.