The Zhuque-2 rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on Wednesday, leaving an unusual purplish trail — a product of its unique methane fuel. The rocket managed to fly, but failed to reach orbit and deliver the 14 satellites it carried on board.
China’s private aerospace company Landspace hoped to lead the way in using methane next-generation rocket fuel– which is considered cleaner and safer than liquid hydrogen, kerosene and other propellants currently in use. Liquid methane is also one good choice in terms of missile reusability, a coveted opportunity for aerospace companies.
Beijing-based Landspace launched the doomed Zhuque-2 at 3:30 a.m. ET on Dec. 14, in what should be the rocket’s first orbital mission. After launch, the rocket’s second stage suffered an engine failure, resulting in a failed mission, Landspace announced on Wednesday. Outside observers had already speculated that the mission was a failure before the company announced it.
Telemetry data suggests the missile reached a speed of 11,000 miles per hour (5 kilometers per second), when it needed about 17,500 miles per hour (7.8 kilometers per second) to maintain a stable trajectory. according to Everyday Astronaut. The rocket carried a commercial payload of 14 satellites, all of which were lost (not sure why the company thought launching so many satellites on an unproven rocket was a good idea, but whatever).
Despite the failure, the orbital test flight was still hailed as an important milestone for China and the private space industry as a whole. The Chinese startup had tried to launch a three-stage Zhuque-1 rocket in 2018, which used solid propellant.
Had Landspace succeeded in launching the rocket into orbit, the company would have beaten Elon Musk’s SpaceX in achieving this vaunted goal. SpaceX also hopes to use liquid methane fuel to fuel its space next generation Starship missiles, which have yet to fly. The company’s Falcon 9 and Super Heavy missiles use kerosene as fuel.
Even before its first orbital test flight, Landspace was preparing for Zhuque-2’s second attempted launch, SpaceNews reported. The second and third models of the rocket are already in development, but Landspace is aiming to eventually make the rocket reusable, according to SpaceNews.
China is making significant progress with its aerospace industry, both private and public. In October, China launched the last module for its own space station in low Earth orbit, completing the ambitious project to rival the International Space Station. China has some too big plans for the moonsetting up future launches that could compete with NASA’s Artemis program.
Launching the first-ever methane-powered rocket into orbit would certainly give China a major advantage over other space programs. Of course, that all depends on how well the second launch attempt goes.
More: China launches 3 astronauts to its fledgling space station