A private Chinese aerospace company has won the race to launch a giant rocket powered by methane and liquid oxygen.
The Zhuque-2, a carrier rocket from LandSpace, blasted off at 9am on Wednesday morning from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert.
The rocket successfully delivered a test payload into sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), the first in the world to make such an achievement.
Earlier this year, two other liquid oxygen methane rockets – the Terran 1 from Relativity Space in the US and SpaceX’s Starship – failed in their maiden attempts to reach orbit.
This morning’s lift-off marks the second attempt for the Zhuque-2, after an unsuccessful launch on December 14.
Methane-powered engines – with their high performance and low operational costs – are particularly suited for the developing trend of reusable rockets. The technology is regarded as the frontrunning design in the new era of rocketry.
The Zhuque-2 team’s achievement is another success for China’s private aerospace sector this year, following the successful launch in April of Space Pioneer’s liquid-propelled Tianlong-2.
The Zhuque-2 is a two-stage liquid-propellant carrier rocket, with all independently developed engines.
According to China Space News, the 49.5 metres long rocket with a diameter of 3.35 metres has a carrying capacity of six tonnes for low Earth orbit and four tonnes for SSO.
“The first stage of the rocket utilises four Tianque-12 liquid oxygen methane engines, achieving a thrust of 268 tonnes. The second stage combines one Tianque-12 and one Tianque-11 engine, with the latter serving as a vernier thruster for fine adjustments to the attitude or velocity,” the report said.
Testing of the TQ-12 engine started in July 2019, with Wednesday’s launch coming after four years of research and development by the company.
In the early stages of liquid rocket development, with natural gas technology still in its infancy, kerosene and liquid hydrogen were commonly used as fuel.
Today, the excellent quality of natural gas produced from certain high-grade fields means that after liquefaction it can be used directly as rocket engine fuel, without the need for additional purification.
The benefits of natural gas – which include high combustion efficiency, environmental friendliness, low cost and easy production – are making it an increasingly preferred option for researchers. Another advantage is that it does not cause carbon to build up in the engine.
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