Commercial Chinese companies set sights on methalox rockets, first orbital launches

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HELSINKI, Finland — One of China’s emerging commercial launch companies says it has designed a methane- and liquid-oxygen-powered rocket it aims to test launch in 2020.

Beijing-based Landspace is developing the Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2) rocket with the goal of completing ground testing in 2019 ahead of debuting the launch vehicle the following year.

The two-stage ZQ-2 was presented July 5 at a press conference in Beijing and will measure 48.8-meters tall with a diameter of 3.35 meters, giving it apparent similarities to the state’s established hypergolic Long March 2 series rockets.

Render of the Landspace Zhuque-2 two-stage methane/LOX rocket (Credit: Landspace)
Render of the Landspace Zhuque-2 two-stage methane/LOX rocket (Credit: Landspace)

With a liftoff mass of 216 metric tons and producing 268 tons of thrust, the ZQ-2 will boast a 4,000-kilogram payload capacity to a 200-kilometer low Earth orbit (LEO) and 2,000 kilograms to 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), using 80-ton and 10-ton methane engines.

The company claims the launch vehicle will also be economical, capable of being mass produced and reusable, and plans to follow up with much larger ZQ-2A, B and C three-stage rockets in the future.

But getting the rocket from presentations to launch pad and beyond may not be straightforward. Paulo Lozano, director of the Space Propulsion Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told SpaceNews that developing new engines and rockets always brings significant challenges before they can become a force in the market.

“As with all rockets, it’s about demonstrated reliability before you can be competitive. Launch costs are significant in any space project, but they’re just a part of the overall investment. It’s an expensive business as they’d need to demonstrate a few flawless launches before it’s picked up by space users.”

While Landspace states its use of liquid methane as an advantage in terms of price, this may not be so large. “The cost of propellants, while a factor, are not really significant compared to the overall cost of building and launching a rocket,” Lozano notes, adding that while methane has lower molecular mass than kerosene and could have some advantages in performance, it has its complications as well, such as the need for cooling to become liquid and its lower density than that of kerosene (RP-1), for example, means a larger tank.

“Overall, high performance is always a good thing, but in practice some compromises are preferred in favor of reliability and costs,” Lozano says.

Speaking more broadly, Lozano says, “No matter how it goes, it’s encouraging to see new players in the field, which keeps things exciting and proves that there’s interest in space.”

 

First commercial orbital rockets near launch

More immediately, Landspace plans to launch its first LandSpace-1 (LS-1) three-stage solid rocket by September, which will carry a satellite to be used by China Central Television (CCTV), according to state media.

A successful orbital launch would be a first for a private Chinese company, but in recent months two other startups, OneSpace and i-Space, have launched their own suborbital rockets.

In May, OneSpace launched its first OS-X series solid rocket, named Chongqing Liangjiang Star, to an altitude of almost 40 kilometers, capturing widespread attention. With less fanfare, iSpace sent its Hyperbola-1S solid rocket above the Karman line from Hainan in April.

More progress has followed. OneSpace, established in 2015, last week announced it had test fired the first stage rocket motor for its OS-M1, the first of an orbital series of rockets, which is now expected to fly before the end of 2018. The launcher is expected to be able to carry a 205-kilogram payload to 300-kilometer LEO, and 73 kilograms to 800-kilometer SSO.

Meanwhile iSpace, set up in 2016, stated that it has received financing worth 600 million yuan ($90.6 million) within a year after securing new capital in a Series A funding from investors led by Matrix Partners China, Caixin reported July 2.

While China’s private and commercial rocket companies are looking provide low-cost access to space with new light and medium-light launchers, the state contractor for the space program is also taking on new challenges to attain fresh capabilities.

Over the weekend, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced it successfully performed a hot-fire test of a new solid-fuel engine that will be used for boosters for the Long March 8, a new generation of medium-lift launcher that will be capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing and is planned to debut in 2021.

Alongside this, CASC is developing a super-heavy-lift Long March 9 launch vehicle that will be able to lift up to 140 metric tons to LEO and facilitate human moon missions, a Mars sample return and other deep space projects.

Huang Jun, a professor at the Beihang University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Beijing, told SpaceNews that major challenges remain in achieving these goals.

Echoing the words of Long Lehao, a chief rocket designer who recently revealed the updated plans for the launchers, Huang notes that China needs to overcome weaknesses in materials science and processes, while intelligent control development is still in its early days.