China’s Landspace appears to be preparing to launch its new methane-fueled rocket

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HELSINKI — Chinese private company Landspace is working towards a first launch of its new methane-fueled Zhuque-2 rocket with the construction of launch facilities at Jiuquan.

Satellite imagery and deleted social media postings indicate that work is progressing on a new complex for facilitating methane-liquid oxygen launch vehicles at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.

Timelapse and high resolution satellite imagery show the development near the national Jiuquan center in the Gobi Desert and suggest the presence of a Zhuque-2 test article. A recent, now-deleted article indicates a new flame trench has been completed at Jiuquan.

More concretely, Landspace CEO Zhang Changwu said in an interview last November that Zhuque-2 could lift off in the first quarter of 2022. 

Jiuquan currently only handles launches of older, hypergolic Long March rockets and solid rockets, necessitating a new comlex. 

Limited details of a complex at Jiuquan to support new launchers were laid out in a paper abstract to be presented at the virtual International Astronautical Congress in 2020. The site will provide access to low Earth orbit and Sun-synchronous orbit and have an initial launch capacity of at least 12 times per year.

The inaugural Zhuque-2 mission could be the first orbital launch attempt of a rocket using a methane-liquid oxygen propellant mix. SpaceX’s Starship could also launch in the coming months. The Federal Aviation Administration is currently working on an environmental review of Starship orbital launches.

Zhuque-2 will be powered by gas generator engines and is to be capable of delivering a 6,000-kilogram payload capacity to a 200-kilometer LEO. Alternatively ZQ-2 can carry 4,000 kilograms to 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit*.

The rocket has a length of 49.5 meters with a diameter of 3.35 meters, according to Landspace. A number of Long March rockets use the same diameter stages. The rocket has a mass at liftoff of 216 tons.

The first Zhuque-2 launch will be expendable, but Landspace is working on technologies including pintle injectors to develop a variable thrust version of the Tianque-12 engine to allow vertical takeoff, vertical landing and thus recover and recycle first stages.

Another Chinese launch firm, iSpace, is developing its own methalox rocket, the Hyperbola-2. The firm is planning to conduct hop tests of the first stage during 2022.

A test article of the Zhuque-2 was also spotted at a new spaceport for maritime launches in Eastern China in Chinese state television coverage in May 2021.

Landspace is one of China’s best-funded launch startups, yet its sole previous launch was the light-lift Zhuque-1 solid rocket in October 2018. That launch ended in failure, with a third stage issue resulting in falling just short of reaching orbital velocity.

The company stated ahead of the Zhuque-1 launch that its main focus was the Zhuque-2, targeting a first launch in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic would have been a factor in delays. The company has however been active in building infrastructure in the meantime, setting up an intelligent manufacturing base in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province and establishing a $1.5 billion medium and large-scale liquid rocket assembly and test plant at Jiaxing, also in Zhejiang.

The launch of Zhuque-2 is expected to be the first orbital attempt of a liquid propellant launch vehicle developed by a Chinese private firm and could be seen as a marker of progress in China’s nascent commercial sector.

So far Landspace, OneSpace, iSpace and Galactic Energy have all launched solid rockets, with the latter two reaching orbit at least once.

In addition to Landspace and iSpace, Galactic Energy, Space Pioneer, Deep Blue Aerospace and others are also developing liquid propellant launchers and vertical takeoff, vertical landing capabilities. 

The Chinese government took the policy decision in late 2014 to open up portions of the space sector to private involvement. 

Policy support and guidance — including regulations for launch and small satellites and national strategies supporting “satellite internet” — as well as investment, from a mix of venture capital and government-linked investment vehicles, has followed in recent years. 

China Rocket, Expace and CAS Space, commercial spinoffs from state-owned CASC, CASIC and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) respectively, are also active in launch in China.

*Article updated at 12.17 p.m. Eastern to update Zhuque-2 capacities.