China nearly overtook SpaceX on game-changing technology

Elon Musk has been warned: His Chinese competitors have no plans to slow down.

On Wednesday, December 14, China witnessed the grand debut of a revolutionary device; The Landspace company has launched the Zhuque-2, a space rocket powered by methane – a fuel of the future that the giants of the sector, starting with SpaceX, are also seeking to tame. This is the first time in history that such a machine has taken off… but the experience unfortunately came to an end.

According to the report of the specialist journalist Andrew Jones for SpaceNews, Zhuque-2 did not arrive at the end of its mission. During the second stage of the flight, after the separation of the first stage, the second set of engines appears to have encountered a major failure.

Based on the information available at this time, the problem was with Vernier motors. These are small complementary thrusters located on either side of the main engines. Unlike the latter, the pressure they provide is not used to tear the vehicle from the clutches of gravity; it is mainly used to correct the trajectory during the ascent.

A real success hidden by the inability to put it into orbit

The entire vehicle therefore began to deviate from its trajectory. It was unable to build enough speed to reach orbit. No footage of this sequence appears to have been filtered, but according to witnesses it ended up falling towards the surface and therefore likely crashed. According to Andrew Jones, a journalist specializing in the Chinese space program, the payload consisting of a few satellites was lost.

Despite this failure, Chinese engineers still have reason to be optimistic. Indeed, it appears that the main engines performed pretty much as expected – and that may be the most important piece of information in this case. Because as mentioned at the beginning of the article, it is not a rocket engine like the others.

Their special character is that they are fed by a mixture of methane and liquid oxygen – that’s what we’re talking about metalox engine. This is a significant difference compared to traditional thrusters. As a general rule, the latter uses one of the petroleum-based fuels (known as kerolox). This is especially the case with the Merlin engines found on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicles.

From petroleum to methane

However, methane-based fuels have enormous advantages over Kerolox-type fuels. Firstly, it is less dense and gives a much higher specific impulse (Isp). Very vulgarly, it is a unit of size which allows the efficiency of these engines to be measured; the higher it is, the less fuel must be mixed with the oxidizer (oxygen) to develop an equivalent pressure.

Concretely, this means that a rocket built around a methalox engine will be significantly less with the same payload. However, the majority of the mass of a launch vehicle is precisely reserved for the storage of these propellants. With fuel at a higher Isp, operators could afford to carry heavier payload. By extension, it would therefore be possible to send more sophisticated machines into space, or to bring much more material there in a single launch.

The other significant advantage of methalox engines compared to their kerolox equivalents is that methane is plentiful and very cheap. Moreover, its combustion is perfect own, in the sense that it does not leave carbon residue on the walls of the engine. There is therefore no need for deep cleaning after each flight. A big advantage for the day-to-day logistics of the operation.

Aviation is changing the paradigm

Reading these advantages, it is easy to understand why all the industry giants are currently working on metal type vehicles. We can mention New Glenn from Blue Origin, Neutron from Rocket Lab, Vulcan from ULA, but also and above all… Starship from SpaceX.

The future spearhead of Elon Musk’s troops, which already makes all competitors tremble (see our article here), when he has not even had his first flight yet, will indeed be equipped with the famous Raptor V2 metallox engines.

Entangled in the “disaster” with the Raptor engines, SpaceX risks bankruptcy

SpaceX was among the first to bet on this technology and has been working on it for years. This engine has long been the company’s top priority. The development was long, excessively difficult and very expensive, to the point of bringing the giant of the sector close to bankruptcy (see our article above). But in recent months, Musk has multiplied the encouraging signals; The Raptor V2 now appears to be ready and the Starship is finally approaching the starting blocks.

SpaceX on the verge of being limited to the post

Many observers therefore believed that SpaceX would become the first company to send a craft into orbit thanks to a methalox engine – a feat that has never been achieved until now. But that was without counting on the dazzling progress in Chinese space travel; without the failure of this little Vernier engine, the Middle Kingdom would most likely have grilled the courtesy of the American champion.

The starship’s debut is nearing, but SpaceX’s future spearhead is still biding its time. © SpaceX

Zhuque-2 remains a vastly less advanced launch vehicle than the future Starship. Overall, it’s still too early to say that Landspace has beaten or surpassed SpaceX on this technology. But this is anything but an insignificant warning shot. As it stands, the company can still be proud to have launched the very first operational metalox vehicle. And this is already a pretty significant step forward, contrary to what the American media behind their national champion seems to suggest.

It will therefore be quite fascinating to follow the next stages of this race. Will Starship be the first vehicle in this category to reach orbit? Or will it be preceded by a young Chinese shot? The bets are open. In any case, it is certain that these advances will not please the American contingent. Uncle Sam already has a very dim view of China’s space successes (see our article), and its rise to power in this area will certainly not ease the tensions between these two countries, which have embarked on a kind of neo-cold war.

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