When it comes to the launch of the first rocket that will burn methane as it travels into orbit, Landspace comes out ahead of its American competitors SpaceX and Relativity Space, as well as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The launch of the Zhuque-2 rocket is scheduled to take place in the Gobi Desert in the region of Inner Mongolia between the dates of December 4 and December 15. In spite of the fact that methane is a greenhouse gas, it is the primary component of the natural world, and its production will be simpler, more energy-efficient, and less harmful to the environment than that of refined kerosene.
Methane: From Cars to Rocket
Climate change has long captivated the global discourse, with recent developments echoing the calls for a greener global future. China currently emits one-third of the world’s greenhouse gases, that is, around 27 per cent. With calls for reducing emissions, methane is at the centre of the climate debate. In 2022, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt focused on methane as the first battlefront against climate change. While 150 countries, including the United States and Russia, pledged reductions in methane emissions, China has been curiously absent from the list of signatories.
Greenhouse gases are peculiar in nature. For example, the shield of humankind from the harmful rays of the Sun, ozone, is essential to the survival of all life on Earth. However, when produced at the surface level, ozone is hazardous to the very life it protects from above in more ways than one. Similarly, methane, the central theme of the current climate change debate, easily synthesises with water and carbon dioxide in space and hence, is referred to as the space fuel of the future.
Compared to traditional space fuels, methane has a higher specific impulse, resulting in better fuel conversion into thrust. Concomitantly, refined kerosene requires less fuel for the same mission. The key challenge has been temperature; at extremely low temperatures, methane poses difficulties with respect to ignition.
To make the most of methane’s potential as a space fuel, the ISRO Liquid Propulsion Centre in Trivandrum is working on several different projects. Methane, as opposed to liquid hydrogen, will serve as the fuel for one of the projects, which will include converting the existing cryogenic engine. The second project involves the development of a smaller, three-ton thrust engine that is powered by an electric motor.
With the space race afoot to colonise Mars, the nearest planet to Earth is rich in water, soil, and atmosphere. Hence, the fueling needs for a return trip can be produced right at Mars instead of fuel rationing for a round trip.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been working on their liquid methane and liquid oxygen mix rocket engine, Raptor. The cost factor thickens, as per various industry experts, because with one time use of rockets, the fuel costs factor is only one per cent of the total cost. However, with reusable rockets being the norm, the space industry will soon be at a juncture where rocket fuels might factor as much as 35 percent of costs, at par with the airlines.
China’s Methane Launchpad
Landspace is one of many Chinese firms working on methane as a rocket fuel. Another Chinese firm, iSpace, is working on their Hyperbola 2 rocket that employs methalox as a fuel. The primary goal for iSpace is the reusability of its rockets, with a potential orbit launch in 2023.
The Zhuque 2 rocket, which Landspace will launch in the next several days, is an expendable vehicle. Despite this, Landspace is enthusiastic about retaining the rocket’s first stage and making certain improvements. At its production facility in Jianxing, Landspace has already scheduled its second and third flights. Assuming everything goes according to plan, six months from now, the next two launches will be ready.
Fuel for the Zhuque 2 will be a combination of liquid methane and liquid oxygen, and the rocket will have two stages. It will be able to deliver up to 6 tonnes of cargo into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The rocket has four engines, and each engine can produce 80 tonnes of thrust individually. During the second stage, four more thrust engines capable of 10 tonnes each will be activated.
Landspace was only established in 2015, and in 2018 the company’s first launch was unsuccessful in reaching orbit. The release of their Zhuque 2 was put on hold because of the epidemic. This will be the first launch ever performed by a Chinese enterprise that uses liquid fuel. The launch of Zhuque 2 will be closely watched by people interested in space exploration worldwide because it ushers in a new era of space exploration and brings the Mars mission that the space community has been working on closer to becoming a reality.