A rocket developed by LandSpace Technology, a private Chinese space startup vying to be the country’s answer to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, on Saturday, launched three satellites into orbit, a milestone in the company’s mission to test whether its vehicle using methane and liquid oxygen is ready for commercial liftoffs. State media reported that the Zhuque-2 Y-3 rocket blasted off at 7:39 a.m. Beijing time at the Jiuquan satellite launch center in the northwestern Gobi desert. The types and weight of the satellites remain undisclosed.
The mission marks the second success for the two-stage methane-powered rocket, first tested in July when it reached a solar orbit without placing any satellites. The success could boost investor confidence in methane as a potential rocket fuel, which can likely support reusable rockets more cleanly and efficiently than solid propellants, liquid hydrogen, or other fuels used in current vehicles.
Founded in 2015, LandSpace is among China’s best-funded space startups, seeking to meet demand for satellite launches amid rising competition to place communications satellites in low-Earth orbit and compete with companies led by SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk. The company says its engine can provide the same performance for a fraction of the cost, aiming to become the world’s first commercial rocket maker using methane as its primary fuel.
But the firm’s journey to orbit has been bumpy. Its first launch with a smaller, solid-propellant rocket last year failed after it crossed the Karman line but failed to reach orbit. Landspace decided to shift to the Zhuque-2 with its more advanced methane engine, which was tested successfully in July.
The company said the latest flight, dubbed Y-3, shows the Zhuque-2 is ready for future commercial missions with its ability to carry a hefty payload into solar orbits. According to the company, the rocket can deliver 1,500 kilograms to a 460-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, and upgrades for its engine are planned to boost its capacity to 4 tons.
Some analysts suggest that China’s space startups follow the example of SpaceX and focus on developing reusable rockets powered by kerosene, which is more affordable than methane. That strategy has been followed by Deep Blue Aerospace, which in May became the first company to successfully send a reusable rocket back into space with a vertical landing. But Zhang said his company aims to provide medium-lift capability with liquid, not solid, rockets, which will be more adaptable to market needs. He added that the company plans to open its $1.5 billion large-scale liquid rocket assembly and test plant in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, next year and produce 200 engines and ten complete rockets annually. The plant will also have a robot to prepare the launch pad and handle satellites. It can also deliver and recover the rocket after a successful orbital launch, saving Landspace from renting space at other locations for those tasks.