China's Methane-Propelled Rocket Successfully Reaches Orbit
China has successfully launched its first methane-propelled rocket, marking a significant milestone in its space exploration efforts. The 164-foot Zhuque-2 rocket, built by private Chinese company Landspace, was launched from the Jiuquan launch complex in Inner Mongolia. This achievement places China ahead of potential competitors from the United States in the race to develop a more powerful spacecraft for moon missions.
The Zhuque-2 Launch
The Zhuque-2 rocket, named after the Chinese word for vermilion rocket, successfully reached orbit after its launch on Wednesday morning local time. The U.S. Space Force confirmed that the rocket's upper stage was carrying a "mass" and was orbiting Earth along a polar flight path inclined 97.3 degrees on the Equator at altitudes between 270 and 287 miles.
This successful launch comes after a failed attempt in December 2022, where several satellites were lost. The Zhuque-2 rocket's four engines, which emit a distinctive bluish color when burning methane, have a combined thrust of 268 metric tons.
Future Plans and Competition
According to Chinese state media, a more powerful rocket using methane could potentially carry a spacecraft for lunar landings, while another ship could transport Chinese astronauts. This achievement is particularly notable considering the numerous failed attempts by other companies to use methane as a propellant. Methane is seen as a less polluting, cheaper, and safer alternative to current rocket fuels.
Several major players in the space industry, including SpaceX, ULA Vulcan, Blue Origin's New Glenn, Rocket Lab's Neutron, and Relativity Space's Terran R, are planning to use a combination of methane and oxygen in their rockets. However, SpaceX's Starship exploded minutes after liftoff on April 20, underscoring the challenges of this technology.
In a separate development, another Chinese rocket, fueled by a kerosene variant derived from coal instead of oil, successfully launched and placed its payload into orbit in early April. This highlights China's continued innovation and progress in space technology.