Elon Musk has been warned: his Chinese competitors have no plans to slow down.
On Wednesday, December 14th, China witnessed the grand debut of a revolutionary device; the company Landspace launched the Zhuque-2, a space launcher powered by methane – a fuel of the future that the giants of the sector, starting with SpaceX, are also trying to tame. This is the first time in history that such a machine has taken off… but the experience unfortunately came to an end.
According to a report by specialized journalist Andrew Jones for SpaceNews, Zhuque-2 did not reach the end of its mission. During the second phase of the flight, after separation from the first stage, the second set of engines appeared to have encountered a major defect.
Based on the information available at the time, the problem was with the Vernier engines. These are small supplementary thrusters located on either side of the main engines. Unlike the latter, the thrust they provide isn’t used to yank the vehicle out of gravity’s grip; it is mainly used to correct the trajectory during the ascent.
A real success hidden by the failure to put it into orbit
The entire vehicle therefore began to deviate from its trajectory. It was unable to gain enough speed to reach orbit. None of this sequence appears to have filtered through, but according to witnesses, it ended up falling towards the surface and therefore probably fell. According to Andrew Jones, a journalist specializing in the Chinese space program, the cargo made up of some satellites was lost.
It appears that the second stage of Zhuque-2 failed to reach orbital speed. Lost satellites. Similar to the Zhuque-1 launch four years ago. https://t.co/DuDtHVHyyc
—Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) December 14, 2022
Despite this shortcoming, Chinese engineers still have reason to be optimistic. Indeed, it looks like the main engines worked as expected – and that might be the most important piece of information in this case. Because as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, it is not a rocket engine like the others.
Their particularity is that they are powered by a mixture of methane and liquid oxygen – so we are talking about metalox engine. This is a considerable difference compared to traditional thrusters. As a rule, these use one of the kerosene-based fuels (known as kerosene). This is particularly the case for the Merlin engines found in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launchers.
From kerosene to methane
However, methane-based fuels have enormous advantages over Kerolox-type fuels. First, it is less dense and offers a much higher specific impulse (Isp). Very commonly, it is a unit of magnitude that allows measuring the efficiency of these engines; the larger, the less fuel must be mixed with the oxidizer (oxygen) to develop equivalent thrust.
Concretely, this means that a rocket built around a metalox engine will be significantly smaller with equal payload. However, most of the mass of a launcher is precisely reserved for the storage of these propellants. With fuel at a higher Isp, operators could afford to haul heavier loads. By extension, it would therefore be possible to send more sophisticated machines into space, or to bring much more material there in a single launch.
The other considerable advantage of metallox engines compared to their kerosene counterparts is that methane is plentiful and very cheap. Furthermore, its combustion is perfectly to have, in the sense of not leaving carbon residues on the engine walls. So there’s no need for deep cleaning after every flight. A huge plus for the day-to-day logistics of operations.
Aerospace is shifting paradigms
Reading these advantages, it’s easy to understand why all the industry giants are currently working on metalox type vehicles. We can mention Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron, ULA’s Vulcan, but also and above all… SpaceX’s Starship.
The future spearhead of Elon Musk’s troop, which already makes all the competition shiver (see our article here) when it hasn’t even made its first flight, will in fact be equipped with the famous Raptor V2 metallox engines.
Entangled in the “disaster” of the Raptor engines, SpaceX is at risk of bankruptcy
SpaceX was one of the first to bet on this technology, and has been working on it for years. This engine has been the company’s top priority. The development was long, excessively difficult and extremely expensive, to the point of bringing the industry giant to the brink of bankruptcy (see our article above). But in recent months, Musk has multiplied the encouraging signs; the Raptor V2 now looks ready and the Starship is finally approaching the starting blocks.
SpaceX on the verge of being limited in rank
Many observers therefore believed that SpaceX would become the first company to put a spacecraft into orbit thanks to a metalox engine – a feat that had never been achieved until now. But that’s not counting the dazzling progress of China’s aerospace industry; without the fault of that little Vernier engine, the Middle Kingdom would likely have grilled courtesy of the American champion.
Zhuque-2 remains an immensely less advanced launcher than the future Starship. Overall, it’s still too early to say that Landspace has outperformed or surpassed SpaceX in this technology. But this is an almost insignificant warning shot. As it stands, the company can still boast of having launched the first operational metallox vehicle. And that’s already quite a substantial advance, contrary to what the American media behind their national champion seems to suggest.
It will therefore be quite fascinating to watch the next stages of this race. Will Starship be the first vehicle in this category to reach orbit? Or will it be preceded by a young Chinese shot? Bets are open. In any case, what is certain is that this advance will not please the American contingent. Uncle Sam already has a very negative view of China’s space successes (see our article), and his rise to power in this area will certainly not alleviate tensions between these two countries embarked on a kind of neo-cold war.