China succeeds where Elon Musk has failed with first methalox rocket

Maybe bigger isn't better when it comes to complicated, error-prone space machines?

China's private space industry took a giant leap past Musk, Bezos and everyone else today with the first successful orbital launch of a methane-powered rocket.

LandSpace Technology Corp's ZQ-2 was launched early Wednesday morning, Beijing time, according to Chinese state-run news agency CCTV, and "was a complete success," per a machine-translated reading of the news. 

Accompanying videos and photos show the purported launch, which was verified independently by telemetry picked up by the US Space Force, astronomer and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said in a tweet.

"Ground track based on the Space Force TLEs is consistent with launch southward from Jiuquan as expected so I'm confident the object is from the ZQ-2 launch," McDowell noted of the launch. 

The successful orbital launch follows a December attempt to reach orbit with the ZQ-2 that failed due to an abnormality in the second stage. Regardless of the failure, the December launch was still a first for LandSpace and its methane-powered rocket: it reached the edge of space before the launch was aborted, meaning the ZQ-2 was also the first CH4 rocket to reach space. 

Like the much smaller ZQ-4 and its Magpie TQ-12 engine, Elon Musk's SpaceX has also been working on a rocket powered by a mix of methane and liquid oxygen, or methalox. Musk has been trying to cram his explosive mixture into the much larger Starship, which has so far failed to reach space, much less orbit.

Starship most recently attempted to reach orbit in April, which failed in a fireball. The US Federal Aviation Administration has since grounded the world's largest (attempt at a) rocket, and it's unclear when it'll be allowed to fly again.

We asked SpaceX for comment on the LandSpace launch, and to ask when it might attempt another launch of Starship, but didn't hear back. Starship is intended to be reusable, it should be noted, and it is hoped the ZQ-2 can be reused at some point, too.

Along with SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, and other firms have all been working on methalox-fueled rockets, but none have so far succeeded where the ZQ-2 appears to have done.

Methalox has become a preferred fuel source for the private space race for a variety of reasons including cost, less coking and soot production, and high efficiency for its density. Unfortunately, there have been limited environmental studies into the impact of methalox emissions, making it unclear how much of an improvement the new fuel may be. ®

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