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A China-based startup named LandSpace Technology Corp has beaten SpaceX when it successfully launched a methane-powered rocket. With this launch, China put itself at the forefront of space technology, after two US-based companies failed in their attempts with similar technology.

LandSpace’s “Zhuque-2” rocket launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert to deliver a test payload in the sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

According to Interesting Engineering, the Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2) is a two-stage liquid-propellant carrier rocket that stands 49.5 meters tall and has a diameter of nearly 3.5 meters. The two stages use independently developed methane-powered engines.

One reason methane is preferable to kerosene is that liquid kerosene creates soot inside the engine, which requires thorough cleaning before reuse. Methane as a fuel is extremely volatile and burns cleaner, significantly reducing the post-recovery workload and increasing the rocket engine’s life.

Using methane fuel has also helped to reduce the rocket’s weight and increase its payload capacity. This was done thanks to methane and oxygen having similar boiling points and therefore can be placed against the same bulkhead, unlike hydrogen and oxygen, which require separate cabins.

The successful ZQ-2 launch also included the placement of a four-tonne satellite in SSO.

According to Interesting Engineering, LandSpace plans upgrades to its engines that will aid in further increasing the ZQ-2’s payload capacity and reducing the launch costs. This will make it a direct competitor to SpaceX.

SpaceX and the U.S.-based Relativity Space had unveiled their methane-powered rocket, but have unfortunately failed to reach orbit during their maiden launches. SpaceX reported that they made “over a thousand” changes to Starship before their second launch attempt, but will it be successful? Only time will tell.