Chinese commercial launch firm Landspace is preparing for the second test flight of its Zhuque-2 rocket, setting the stage for a groundbreaking achievement, should the methane-fueled rocket successfully reach orbit.
Zhuque-2, meaning “Vermillion Bird-2,” is scheduled to launch on July 12, 2023, at 2:00 a.m. ET from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, according to NextSpaceflight. The rocket’s success could usher in a new era of methalox-powered rocket engines for orbital and interplanetary transportation. The global spaceflight community will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on this upcoming launch as Landspace seeks to demonstrate the viability of methalox rocket fuel. As of yet, no information has been disclosed about the rocket’s payloads.
Methalox is fast becoming the preferred rocket fuel for launch providers. The benefits of methalox (a methane-oxygen mixture) are deemed to be more attractive than conventional liquid fuels like kerosene due to its cleaner, safer properties, and is deemed particularly suitable for reusable rockets. And conceivably, it could be manufactured off planet, including on Mars. Several prominent space companies are developing rockets that will use the fuel, including SpaceX’s Starship, Rocket Lab’s Neutron, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Relativity Space’s Terran R.
The first launch of the 162-foot-tall (49.5 meters) rocket didn’t go so well. Zhuque-2 failed to reach orbit during its maiden flight on December 14, 2022, resulting in the destruction of all 14 satellites on board. Investigations traced the issue to a faulty second-stage liquid oxygen inlet pipe, as reported by SpaceNews. A successful mission this time would see Landspace becoming the second private Chinese company to conduct a successful launch with a liquid propellant rocket, after Space Pioneer achieved the feat in April with its Tianlong-2 rocket.
Equipped with gas generator engines, the Zhuque-2 is capable of producing 243 metric tons of thrust, and it boasts a payload capacity of 6 metric tons to low Earth orbit—or a reduced payload capacity of 4 metric tons to a Sun-synchronous orbit, the company claims.
The evolution of the Zhuque-2 represents a significant shift in Landspace’s strategy, which earlier focused on solid propellants like the one used in the three-stage Zhuque-1 rocket, which failed to reach orbit during its first and only launch. Landspace and the Zhuque-2 are products of the Chinese government’s commitment to opening up the space sector to private industry, a process that began nearly 10 years ago.
Two other methalox-driven rockets failed to reach orbit during their maiden flights, namely SpaceX’s Starship and Relativity Space’s 3D-printed Terran-1, the latter being retired and replaced with Terran-R. A private launch provider, one would think, will eventually hoist a methane-fueled rocket to orbit. This coming Wednesday, it could very well be Landspace.