HELSINKI — Chinese commercial launch firm Landspace is set for a second attempt to reach orbit with its Zhuque-2 rocket July 12.
The second Zhuque-2 methane-liquid oxygen rocket was rolled out to the pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert July 6, according to Chinese social media posts.
Satellite imagery later confirmed the development. Earlier Chinese media reports indicate the launch is scheduled for July 12 Beijing time.
If successful, Zhuque-2 (“Vermillion Bird-2”) will become the world’s first methalox launch vehicle to achieve orbit. A range of methalox rockets, including SpaceX’s Starship, the ULA Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron and Terran R from Relativity Space, are at various stages of development and testing.
A successful Zhuque-2 flight would also make Landspace the second private Chinese rocket company to perform a successful launch with a liquid propellant rocket. Space Pioneer, full name Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd, became the first such company in April with the launch of its Tianlong-2 rocket.
The upcoming launch comes almost seven months after the debut flight of the Zhuque-2, also from Jiuquan. That December 2022 launch ended in failure due to an issue with a liquid oxygen inlet pipe feeding four vernier thrusters on the rocket’s second stage.
Zhuque-2 is powered by gas generator engines producing 268 tons of thrust. It is capable of delivering a 6,000-kilogram payload capacity to a 200-kilometer low Earth orbit (LEO), or 4,000 kilograms to 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), according to Landspace.
The rocket has a diameter of 3.35 meters—the same as a number of national Long March rockets—a total length of 49.5 meters and a take-off mass of 219 tons.
The rocket is currently expendable but Landspace is working on a s tested a restartable version of the 80-ton-thrust TQ-12 engine which powers the Zhuque-2 first stage.
The firm is also working on an improved second-stage engine which will not require vernier engines. This upgraded engine will not be present on the second Zhuque-2.
Landspace is one of the earliest and best-funded of China’s emerging commercial launch firms. The company’s first launch took place four years ago with the much smaller and simpler solid-propellant Zhuque-1 and ended in failure.
The Chinese government opened up parts of the space sector to private capital in late 2014, seen to be a reaction to developments in the U.S.
This policy shift and subsequent policy support and guidance has been the catalyst for the emergence of hundreds of space-related companies engaged in a range of activities, including launch, satellite operation and manufacture, ground stations, downstream applications, and more.
A number of commercial launch companies are now looking to China’s “Guowang” national satellite internet project as a potential source of contracts and revenue.
China recently opened a call for space station commercial cargo proposals, further indicating that commercial firms will have a growing role to play in the country’s space sector.
Landspace and other early movers in China’s commercial launch sector such as iSpace and Galactic Energy committed to plans to develop light-lift solid and liquid propellant rockets.
Newer entrants such as Space Pioneer and Orienspace are moving directly towards medium-lift and heavier classes of launchers, likely informed by the emergence of the possible satellite internet and programs.
A range of remote sensing constellations are also being designed and planned by a range of state and commercial actors, providing further opportunities for launch contracts.The first launch of China’s communications megaconstellation satellites is expected in the second half of the year, using a Long March rocket developed by China’s state-owned main space contractor, CASC.