China claims world-first with methane-powered space launch
China has stolen a march on the rest of the world in the new Space Race with the successful launch of the first space rocket powered by liquid methane and oxygen. Aerospace company LandSpace's Suzaku-2 Yao booster successfully lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on July 12, 2023 at 9:00 am Beijing time.
Also known as the Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2), the Suzaku-2 is powered by four TQ-12 Magpie engines running on a mixture of methane and oxygen that allow each to generate 150,000 lb of thrust or enough to put six tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit.
The successful launch follows on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt on December 14, 2022, as well as attempts by other companies to fly a methane-fueled rocket, including Relativity Space's Terran 1 on March 22, 2023 and the SpaceX Starship on April 20, 2023. In addition, Blue Origin is busy developing its own methane engine for orbital launches.
The flight of Suzaku-2 is more than just a technical achievement. It also marks a major advance in the goal of human missions into deep space and China's ambitions to become the major spacefaring nation in the near future.
Until now, missions beyond Earth orbit have relied heavily on boosters burning hydrogen fuel because of its high energy density. However, cryogenic hydrogen isn't practical for long missions because it boils away and is difficult to produce off Earth. Methane makes a better alternative because it can be stored at higher temperatures, leaves less engine residue, and is not prone to hydrogen embrittlement, where hydrogen can damage a metal by penetrating its crystalline structure.
In addition, techniques are being developed that will allow automated factories on the Moon and Mars to produce methane from native materials to fuel return journeys by future astronauts.
In the meantime, LandSpace has announced that the Suzaku-2 is slated for mass production.