China successfully sends a liquid oxygen-methane carrier rocket 

By Liu Shiyao, Dou Hao, People’s Daily

On July 12, China successfully launched a new carrier rocket into space from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.

The Zhuque-2 carrier rocket is the world’s first rocket powered by liquid oxygen-methane fuel and successfully entered its planned orbit, as well as the first liquid-propellant rocket entering its planned orbit independently developed by a Chinese private rocket company.

The successful launch marked that China’s first high-thrust liquid oxygen-methane engine has completed a flight mission and a breakthrough in the new low-cost, liquid propellant application for China’s carrier rockets.

The Zhuque-2 is a two-stage rocket with a body diameter of 3.35 meters and a height of 49.5 meters. Its takeoff weight is about 219 tons, and its thrust is about 268 tons.

Stage 1 of the rocket is powered by four Tianque-12 engines, each with a vacuum thrust of 80 tons, and stage 2 by a single TQ-12 engine and four TQ-11 vernier engines.

As a launch vehicle, a carrier rocket is the foundation of all space activities, and the engine is the “heart” of a missile, while the fuel decides the critical performance of a rocket.

Rocket propellants include liquid fuels and solid fuels. In particular, liquid fuels include liquid oxygen (LOX)/kerosene, LOX/liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen-methane, etc. Each of the powers has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the LOX/kerosene fuel features low cost and high specific impulse but is prone to carbon deposition and coking.

Liquid oxygen-methane is a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane. It is efficient, green, cheap, and easily extracted. It comes with less carbon deposition, which reduces the workload in engine cleaning and thus lowers the maintenance cost of reusable rockets. That’s why it is considered one of the ideal materials for making rocket propellants.

According to Zhang Changwu, CEO of Land Space, the company that developed the Zhuque-2, liquid oxygen, and methane are widely applied in both the civil and industrial sectors, and they are very accessible and cheap.

The cost of this fuel, which is expected to become an industrial product in massive supply once the technology of liquid oxygen-methane engine matures, will be more controllable, Zhang added.

Aerospace is a technologically challenging industry with high risks. Today’s world has entered a rapid development phase of reusable liquid oxygen-methane rockets. Multiple such missiles are underway outside China. In the first half of this year alone, two other liquid oxygen-methane rockets were launched, but they both failed.

The development of the Zhuque-2 carrier rocket was more complex sailing. At the end of the last year, it failed in its first mission. Land Space established an investigation group to look into the reasons causing the failure and adopted multiple measures for improvement.

It took work for the company to succeed today after it experienced failure in the first mission of the Zhuque-2. The development team did a lot of work, including launch tests, ground vibration tests, hydraulic tests, and final assembly detection.

“What we achieved this time was not only a successful launch of a rocket but also the capability of a private aerospace company in developing, testing, manufacturing, and launching rockets. We’ll keep going toward our massive and commercial rocket development and manufacturing goal and prove our value with innovation,” Zhang said.

As the first Chinese rocket powered by liquid oxygen-methane fuel, the Zhuque-2 is expected to lower the cost of commercial rocket launching and bring a revolution to the market of commercial rocket launching.

Zhang said the company would keep upgrading the Zhuque series to improve its performance and offer the market low-cost, high-performance, high-thrust rockets.

The private aerospace sector has experienced rapid development over the past ten years and become an indispensable force in China’s aerospace industry. It covers rocket launching, satellite and ground facility development, satellite operation, satellite application, and other areas.

According to statistics, China is home to over 400 private aerospace companies operating over 350 in-orbit satellites. The private aerospace sector has released considerable economic potential, with a market size of around 1 trillion yuan ($139.59 billion).

Experts noted that China is seeing a significant increase in the frequency and number of space launches and a massive demand for commercial launches. Private aerospace enterprises with solid innovation capability, flexible commercial operation, and transparent market orientations inject new vitality into China’s aerospace industry.

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